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Volunteer tax preparation

Volunteer Bruce Jackson, left, helps Anthony White prepare his tax forms Feb. 1 at the Center For Siouxland in Sioux City. The center provides free tax preparation services under the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

SIOUX CITY -- Anthony White is grateful for the free tax preparation services Center For Siouxland provides through its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

On a recent Thursday morning, White sat at VITA volunteer Bruce Jackson's desk at the nonprofit human service agency at 715 Douglas St. as Jackson worked on his tax return.

"I jumped on this right away, because without it I don't know what I would be doing and don't have the money to do it," White said.

According to the National Society of Accountants, the average cost of professional tax preparation is $261. The IRS says Americans who choose to prepare their returns themselves, will spend 13 hours doing so on average.

For more than 35 years, Center For Siouxland has offered free tax preparation services with funding provided by the United Way of Siouxland and Le Mars United Way. The services, which are provided by more than 60 IRS-certified volunteers, are available to those who earned $54,000 or less in 2017 at Center For Siouxland, Mary Treglia Community House and The Living Center in Le Mars.

Last year, Center For Siouxland prepared and filed 1,512 tax returns, amounting to over $2.2 million in refunds and credits.

Susan McGuire, a VITA program volunteer and grant writer for Center For Siouxland, said tax time can be intimidating, especially for those who fear the IRS.

"People don't really understand all of the paperwork that they get that says, 'important tax document,'" she said. "It's if you owe that it's a big problem if you don't file on time."

What do I need to file?

Volunteer tax preparation

Carol Myers talks about her volunteer tax preparation work during an interview Feb. 1 at the Center For Siouxland in Sioux City. Myers recommends making an appointment with a tax preparer as soon as you have all of the forms and paperwork that you need.

Carol Myers, who has been volunteering with the VITA program for six years, recommends making an appointment with a tax preparer as soon as you have all of the forms and paperwork that you need, including your W-2, mortgage, Social Security and bank interest statements.

"Last year's tax return is a big one. If they don't have that, then we require them to try and get a transcript from the IRS," she said. 

Itemize or standard deduction?

Myers said major revisions to the U.S. tax code, which were brought about by the tax reform bill recently signed into law by President Donald Trump, won't affect your 2017 tax return. The new law restricts or eliminates many "miscellaneous deductions." Whether filers should claim the standard deduction or itemize their deductions going forward, Myers said, is based on their filing status and income.

"The way I'm reading it, next year many people will probably not be itemizing their expenses because they are increasing the standard deduction," she said.

Do I pay a penalty if I didn't have health insurance in 2017?

The Affordable Care Act requires individuals to have health insurance or pay a penalty at tax time. Although the tax reform bill repealed the ACA's individual mandate, Myers said those who didn't have health insurance for tax year 2017 will still be subject to a penalty.

The penalty is $695 for an individual, up to a maximum of $2,085 for a family or 2.5 percent of household income, whichever is higher.

When do I have to have my federal income taxes filed by?

Federal tax day is April 17 this year. The deadline to file usually falls on April 15. 

McGuire said the legal holiday Emancipation Day, which will be observed on Monday, April 16, will push the deadline to Tuesday, April 17. Emancipation Day, which is observed in Washington, D.C., celebrates President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862.

"Do it by the 15th and you'll be safe," McGuire said of filing.

Can I get an extension to file my federal tax return?

Myers said you can get a three-month extension to file, but you'll still have to pay your taxes ASAP.

"It's not an extension to pay your taxes," she said. "If you expect to owe, you'll still need to make arrangements to pay as soon as you can to avoid any interest and penalties."

When will I receive my refund?

Filers who qualify for the earned income credit and/or the additional child tax credit will wait longer for their refunds.

"I think the people who don't have any earned income credit will get theirs in 21 days or so, but for the earned income credit it will be after Feb. 27," McGuire said.


Health and Lifestyles reporter

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