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VITA program assists taxpayers during pandemic

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The impact University of Georgia students have made on the state through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program can be measured in straightforward economic terms.

Student tax preparers in the program helped Georgia taxpayers file more than 1,000 federal and state tax returns and save over $400,000 in preparation and filing fees this year. The IRS estimated the statewide economic impact of the services to be $2.83 million.

For faculty member Joan Koonce, equally as important is the impact the program has on UGA students, who apply classroom lessons through direct interactions with citizens seeking the program’s free tax preparation services.

“When the students first come in, they’re nervous wrecks,” said Koonce, professor and UGA Extension financial planning specialist in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “Some of them are really afraid to talk to the taxpayers, but when they leave, they are totally different people. They have a whole lot of confidence in their ability to communicate with people of all different backgrounds.”

UGA has participated in the VITA program for 15 years in partnership with Georgia United Credit Union. The program is designed to provide free tax preparation assistance to individuals and families with low to moderate income, those with disabilities and the elderly.

Students, both financial planning majors from FACS as well as accounting majors from the Terry College of Business, are certified as tax preparers by the IRS and earn academic credit for their involvement.

“They work in pairs, generally, and a pair of students will see potentially 40 different clients over a regular tax season,” FACS faculty member Lance Palmer said. “While there might be a lot of similarities in tax returns, it’s 40 unique people they’re having conversations with and providing recommendations for based on their unique situations. It’s a tremendous experience for the students.”

Four years ago, the program expanded to include a virtual component. Virtual VITA allows taxpayers to work with their local UGA Extension agent to facilitate remote tax preparation services with students based in Athens.

The program now operates in 16 additional Georgia counties representing all areas of the state.

“I think where I benefited the most was just getting comfortable talking to clients and learning how to talk to them about money,” said Lindsay McKay, who served as a site coordinator for Virtual VITA during the final semester of her master’s program in financial planning. “You learn how to translate jargon into language clients can understand. Seeing how it applies in real life was really helpful.”

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic cutting this year’s VITA sessions short by several weeks, over 100 UGA student tax preparers were able to help 1,088 households file federal and state tax returns this year, representing $1,833,868 in total refunds.

“It was so great to see what students can accomplish on the precipice of a recession,” Palmer said.

The Virtual VITA program actually assisted more taxpayers this year in just half a season than it did all of last year, pointing to tremendous growth potential statewide.

A significant contributing factor in that growth is the expanded space for students in the recently renovated Charles Schwab Financial Planning Center.

In addition to a gift from the Charles Schwab Foundation, three independent advisory firms in Atlanta – SignatureFD, TrueWealth Management and Homrich Berg Wealth Management – committed funds to overhaul the historic building in 2018 to create state of the art facilities for training students.

“It helped tremendously,” Koonce said of the new space that more than doubled the number of computers students could use for remote sessions. “It allowed us to handle more taxpayers than we could before.”

Cal Powell is the public relations coordinator for the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
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