Help for seniors at tax time

By Julian Block
Provided by

For more than four decades, the Internal Revenue Service has sponsored a Tax Counseling for the Elderly program. A key part of the program is AARP Tax-Aide, a tax assistance and preparation program that is offered at approximately 6,500 sites nationwide during the filing season.

AARP says that its 34,600 volunteers have trained with IRS materials and been certified by an IRS examination. These counselors can help with most tax circumstances faced by low- and moderate-income taxpayers and put special emphasis on those age 60 and older. To find an AARP Tax-Aide volunteer site in your community, call 888-227-7769 (888-AARPNOW), or access the site locator.

AARP counselors and volunteers in other organizations prepare nearly 3.5 million returns annually. Like accountants, attorneys, financial planners and other paid preparers, volunteers make lots of mistakes, according to the Government Accountability Office, which reports to Congress on the operations of the IRS and other offices of the federal government. A GAO audit of volunteer programs concluded that the accuracy rate was just 59 percent. But volunteers did much better on the IRS's own, larger sampling which found that the accuracy rate was 79 percent.

Another way the IRS helps seniors and other taxpayers is with its nearly 100 publications and other tax material. IRS publications provide considerably more information about specific situations than is included in the instructions that accompany returns. Publication 910, Guide to Free Tax Services, identifies the many IRS tax materials and services available to you and how, when and where you can get them.

For instance, Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax, can help you prepare your Form 1040. This 300-page publication takes you step-by-step through each part of the return. The agency's annual bestseller extensively covers such items: how to report income from salaries, dividends from mutual funds and individual stocks, interest and withdrawals from IRAs, 401ks and other retirement plans. It also covers whether to itemize your outlays for mortgage interest payments, donations to charities and the like or to take the standard deduction, the flat amount based mostly on filing status and age that you automatically get without having to itemize your spending.

The tax manual's front section highlights the latest tax law changes so that you can take them into account before filling out your return.

Other helpful guides for seniors focus on specific subjects. They include: Publications 524 -- Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled, 554 -- Tax Guide for Seniors and 590 -- Individual Retirement Arrangements.

Free copies of publications are available by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676) or downloading from the IRS website. Publications are also available at most local IRS offices and at other community locations like libraries and city and county government offices.

Julian Block is an attorney and author based in Larchmont, N.Y. He has been cited as "a leading tax professional" (New York Times), "an accomplished writer on taxes" (Wall Street Journal) and "an authority on tax planning" (Financial Planning Magazine).

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