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Accounting Aid launches new free tax-prep program

Stepfanie Romine
for Accounting Aid
VITA ACE helps ensure impacted families receive their tax refunds and economic stimulus payments.

While taxes are “certain,” according to the old adage, preparing them can fill anyone with uncertainty. Thankfully, Accounting Aid Society has helped Michigan families navigate their tax returns since 1972.

Why offer free tax preparation

While both the federal and state tax systems are set up as tools to provide financial support for low-and moderate-income households, navigating them is challenging. The systems are confusing, misunderstood and overlooked — and they can lead to predatory practices that cost families unnecessarily.

Households affected by poverty or economic insecurity may also face a lack of knowledge, trust and access to economic resources and supportive programming. Those hurdles can burden households, especially those that depend on their tax refunds to pay for basic needs, put food on the table and cover medical expenses. A tax refund can account for up to 30% of some households’ annual income.

However, accessing those much-needed funds isn’t always easy, and any hurdle can put critical tax credits and benefits at risk.

New this year, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and increased isolation, they’ve launched a new method of tax assistance that gives low-and moderate-income families a safe and secure way to have their city, state and federal tax returns prepared for free, right from the safety of their homes.

VITA ACE helps ensure impacted families receive their tax refunds and economic stimulus payments. The new program stands for accessible, convenient and electronic, and it is one of three free tax preparation service delivery methods that Accounting Aid Society provides. The group works on more than 18,000 tax returns — and facilitates more than $21 million in refunds — to Michigan residents every year.

VITA ACE was designed to support taxpayers during social distancing and stay at home orders, but it will remain a permanent option, even when in-person services can safely be resumed.

In the future, the program will give more taxpayers access to free tax preparation. VITA ACE is aimed at families who face hurdles that prevent them from accessing other methods of tax preparation, due to inadequate transportation, scheduling constraints and geographic barriers. It will also help those who are homebound or people with disabilities.

Why this service is so important

Unemployment is at unprecedented levels during COVID-19, and taxpayers need help quickly and urgently. They not only are waiting to receive their refunds but also the critical cash support from the CARES Act, which is largely based on 2018 and 2019 tax returns

The VITA ACE tax program is a free and trustworthy alternative to commercial preparation, ensuring families receive every dollar earned, including the Earned Income Tax Credit. The program works collaboratively with neighborhood-based organizations and a team of over 500 volunteers to help families navigate obstacles, decisions and opportunities. This ensures that economic mobility and financial security are possible, regardless of circumstances.

How VITA ACE works

VITA ACE has been tested and approved by the Internal Revenue Service. Here’s how it works:

  • Tax filers go through the intake process over the phone with an Accounting Aid Society team member.
  • Using their smartphone or tablet, they take photos of their tax documents and identification, before uploading them to a secure link sent through encrypted email.
  • Accounting Aid remains on the phone throughout the process, to provide support and ensure safety and accuracy.
  • The tax return is remotely prepared by the agency’s IRS-certified tax team.
  • The completed return is sent back to the client for electronic authorization before it’s electronically filed.

Accounting Aid Society has worked to identify and remove hurdles to the process, including:

  • Technology requirements: Volunteers remain on the phone as long as necessary to guide clients through the tech side. Clients can also borrow a trusted relative’s or friend’s phone or tablet if that is a hurdle.
  • Security: The encrypted email link is an IRS approved, tested and certified method, uses encrypted email, and all volunteers must pass a background check before working with Accounting Aid.

VITA ACE is part of the larger mission of Accounting Aid Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization established in 1972. They envision an economy that works for everyone, with a mission to provide tax assistance and promote the economic self-sufficiency of low-to-moderate income families, seniors and others in need through volunteerism and partnerships.

VITA ACE is limited to most families and individuals with incomes up to $56,000. (This income threshold usually changes from year to year.) Filers who meet these criteria and have the requisite technology are encouraged to schedule an appointment online or by calling 313-556-1920.

More information on VITA ACE, how it works and what to expect can be found on www.accountingaidsociety.org/vita-ace.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.