Trained volunteers help make filing time less taxing
Free preparation available for seniors and many others, too
Jim Seger spent 40 years of his life overseas, traveling all over as a teacher with the military.
The 78-year-old musician started out in Hawaii in the mid-1950s before it was a state, and later spent time in Turkey, Korea, and England, as well as many other countries.
And for 26 years, he lived in Germany. He learned to speak the language fluently, and was in Berlin three days before the wall started going up in 1961, and again when it came down in 1989.
But after experiencing all that he has - the intricacies of different cultures, the connective threads of human nature, the countries torn up by war - there’s still one thing that overwhelms and confounds him: his taxes.
“My mind boggles,’’ the Haverhill resident said with a hearty laugh.
In an attempt to minimize the pain, he is one of many to take advantage of numerous free tax services for seniors and others with low to moderate incomes.
“I just have no taste for it at all,’’ he said.
Not that he’s alone in that: Many of us experience brain cramping, bewilderment, and sometimes even bug-eyed, hair-pulling terror when it comes to the yearly chore. And that anxiety and fear only build as the dreaded April 15 deadline approaches.
This year we’ll all get a bit of a reprieve, as the due date is actually April 17 for both federal and Massachusetts returns, the federal extension due to Washington’s observance of Emancipation Day, the state extension due to the celebration of Patriots Day, both holidays falling on April 16.
Still, you don’t necessarily have to suffer on your own. Many people, whether they’re seniors or they fall below a certain income threshold, are eligible for free help through various programs.
One of the more popular and long-running ones is AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, which is sponsored by the nonprofit organization for those age 50 and up, in conjunction with the IRS.
Every year, volunteers are trained to provide free tax preparation to those with low to moderate income (which is not specifically defined), with “special attention’’ to those 60 and older.
Nearly four dozen cities and towns north of Boston take part in the program, typically linking people with volunteers through their councils on aging or senior centers.
Meanwhile, other local nonprofits and organizations, such as Community Teamwork Inc., serving greater Lowell; Tri-City Community Action Program Inc., serving Everett, Malden, Medford, and surrounding communities; and Community Action Programs Inter-City Inc., in Chelsea and Revere, offer their own free assistance for qualifying individuals and families.
And according to those who administer the various programs, scores of people take full advantage.
Since it was established in 1968, Foundation Tax-Aide has been adopted by all 50 states and Washington, D.C., and has helped roughly 50 million people complete their taxes.
North of Boston, about 2,500 people participate in the program every year, according to district coordinator John McManus. Typically, as he and others explained, because the definition of low to moderate income is not strictly defined, volunteers will usually assist anyone who comes to them, within reason.
“It’s great to have it done for nothing,’’ said 86-year-old Alice “Dolly’’ Brown of Amesbury, who collects Social Security and has her taxes done in her city through a Foundation Tax-Aide volunteer. “Not too many things are free anymore, especially when you’re on a fixed income.’’
“I’d just as soon have somebody else do it. They know what they’re doing more than me,’’ agreed 69-year-old Sis Harris of Amesbury, a retired housekeeper who also collects Social Security and has her taxes done through her city’s program. “I probably could do it, but I’d get too frustrated.’’
But just what is it about taxes that causes so much apprehension and confusion?
“It’s daunting to read something like this,’’ said Marie Messner, a North Shore volunteer for 15 years, holding up a manual for the 1040 form for 2011. “The rules get to be complicated; also, they change. And people don’t always know what the terms mean.’’
Also, she said, people aren’t always aware of the credits at their disposal. There’s the Circuit Breaker Tax Credit program for low-income seniors, for example; it calculates a refund of up to $980, with homeowners gaining eligibility if they spent more than 10 percent of their income on real estate taxes. The law has a provision for renters as well.
Messner, a senior herself, is one of about 60 local volunteers through the Tax-Aide program, according to McManus. To qualify, they have to go through several days of training before every tax season, as well as sign a confidentiality agreement and score well on a take-home test, he explained.
Messner started sessions on Feb. 1, will continue them through April 17, and will see roughly 12 to 16 people a week, she said.
Typically, participants come in for one or more sessions to provide Messner with their 1099s and other documentation, and to answer a series of questions about their income, pension, investments, real estate taxes, charitable contributions, and any part-time income, she explained; she’ll then fill in the answers on a computer program.
All told, Amesbury had 132 people take advantage of the program in 2011, according to Council on Aging director Annmary Connor.
Brown, for her part, has done it for about four years now.
“It’s just so confusing,’’ said the retired nurse and former Sweet Adeline, or female barbershop singer. “I suppose I could figure it out if I sat there long enough, but I never tried.’’
Seger, the former world traveler, used to do so. While working overseas, he, in fact, did his own taxes every year, as he only had to file a federal return.
But when he retired and finally had to start doing state taxes, “they fuddled me,’’ said Seger, who originally hails from Wisconsin (and still has a touch of the accent), and continues to play the organ.
And when he tries to do his own taxes now? “I go blind,’’ he quipped.
So for the past 12 years, he’s worked with Messner.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the two met in the Amesbury veterans’ office to work on his 2011 return; he had a briefcase at his feet organized with plastic folders, and rifled through stacks of papers on his lap. The two analyzed various forms and eventually got deadlocked on an investment question, having to make another meeting for another day.
“I was thinking of just throwing in the towel,’’ Seger joked as he packed up.
Messner laughed and asked, “I’ll be hearing from you, right?’’
“Oh, you bet you will,’’ he replied.
But whether you’re brave enough to do it on your own or you seek out paid or free help, Messner has one piece of universal advice.
In preparation for tax season, she said, “put all the things that pertain to your taxes in one spot - use a shoebox if you want to - so you can access them easily, and you won’t forget anything.’’