What is Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and can it help you?

African-American woman volunteering for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program and helping a young African-American couple prepare their tax return.Image: African-American woman volunteering for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program and helping a young African-American couple prepare their tax return.

In a Nutshell

The federal Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is designed to help low- to moderate-income taxpayers file their federal income tax returns. If you make $57,000 or less, or meet certain qualifications, IRS-certified volunteers will assist you for free in preparing your tax return.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and Tolla Tu, tax specialist with Credit Karma. It has been updated for the 2020 tax year.

Just uttering the word “taxes” can send chills down some people’s spines.

Preparing and filing taxes can feel intimidating, especially if it’s your first time doing them. DIY software and online services have made it easier than ever to file your own taxes. But if you still don’t feel confident about flying solo, there’s no shame in asking for some help.

Fortunately, there are options to help you successfully complete your return, and some even offer free tax-preparation assistance.

Several online filing services offer step-by-step instructions for completing a tax return. Still, some people might prefer to work with a knowledgeable tax professional. But if you can’t afford to pay for professional tax preparation or have other challenges working with a tax preparer, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program may be a good option.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance basics

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, is federally sponsored and available to qualifying individuals who want in-person help with their tax return. IRS-certified volunteers provide free tax preparation assistance for basic income tax returns and typically include electronic filing.

Who qualifies for VITA?

The VITA program is meant to reach people looking for assistance with their taxes who may otherwise struggle completing a return or paying for tax-preparation help. This can include …

  • People who make $57,000 or less a year
  • Filers with disabilities
  • People with limited English-language skills

Who provides VITA assistance?

People willing to give their time and talents to benefit their community can volunteer as VITA tax assistants. This could be a retired tax professional, a graduate accounting student, or simply someone who understands the tax-filing process and wants to help.

Rest assured, all volunteers are IRS-certified. This means they go through specialized training before they can provide free tax-preparation assistance. You’ll work with one of these volunteers who can help you complete and file your tax return.

What VITA can and can’t help with

VITA volunteers help provide free basic income tax return preparation. According to the IRS, they commonly handle the paperwork for …

  • Wages, salaries, etc. (Form W-2)
  • Interest income (Form 1099-INT)
  • Dividends received (Form 1099-DIV)
  • State tax refunds (Form 1099-G)
  • Unemployment benefits (Form 1099-G)
  • IRA distributions (Form 1099-R)
  • Pension income (Forms 1099-R, RRB-1099, CSA-1099)
  • Social Security benefits (Form SSA-1099)
  • Simple capital gain/loss (Form 1099-B)
  • Gambling winnings (Form W-2G)
  • Education credits (Form 1098-T)
  • Child tax credit
  • Earned income tax credit
  • ACA statements (Forms 1095-A, B or C)

VITA can’t help with more complex tax returns, including the following:

  • Schedule C with losses
  • Complicated Schedule D (capital gains and losses)
  • Form SS-5 (request for Social Security number)
  • Form 8606 (nondeductible IRA)
  • Form 8615 (minor’s investment income)
  • Form SS-8 (determination of worker status for purposes of federal employment taxes and income tax withholding)
  • Parts 4 and 5 of Form 8962 (Premium Tax Credits)
Tax forms 101: Forms you need to file your taxes

Preparing for your VITA meeting

If you qualify for the VITA program, you’ll want to locate a site near you and check its hours. The next step is to organize your tax records so that your meeting goes smoothly.

How to find a local VITA site

For VITA details, you can visit the IRS website or check for information on your state’s department of revenue website. VITA sites are located nationwide and are typically found in neighborhood associations and community centers. They also can be found at libraries, schools and malls. Call 1-800-906-9887 or use the VITA Locator Tool to find a site near you.

What to bring to a VITA meeting

Getting organized ahead of time can help streamline your session with a VITA volunteer. According to the IRS, you should bring these to your VITA appointment:

  • All Forms W-2 and 1099
  • Information for other income
  • Information for all deductions and credits
  • A copy of last year’s federal and state tax returns
  • Proof of account for direct deposit of refund
  • Social Security cards or individual taxpayer identification number notices/cards for you, your spouse and/or dependents
  • Proof of identification for yourself and/or your spouse
  • Total paid to daycare provider and their tax ID number
  • Birthdates for you, spouse and/or dependents on the return
  • Proof of foreign status if applying for an individual taxpayer identification number
  • Forms 1095-A, B or C (Affordable Care Act statements)
  • For prior-year returns, copies of income transcripts from IRS (and state, if applicable)

Note: For taxpayers who are married filing jointly, both spouses must be present.

What if I can’t use VITA or there isn’t a location near me?

Free online tax preparation and filing services are an option no matter your age or income level. You may be able to choose one that’s entirely free to file both your federal and state returns, and that doesn’t charge you for common tax choices like standard versus itemized deductions.

If you are 50 or older and can’t access a VITA office, the AARP Tax Foundation Tax-Aide program could be a good alternative. This program focuses on older adults with general tax concerns as well as tax issues specifically related to retirement.

Bottom line

If you feel you need in-person assistance with filing your tax return, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program may be a good option — provided you meet income and other qualifications. You’ll get access to an IRS-certified volunteer who can walk you through your basic income tax return. If you don’t qualify for VITA help, you may be able to tackle your own taxes with the aid of tax filing software that provides support for your questions.

A tax specialist with Credit Karma, Tolla Tu has international experience in accounting, tax, finance, banking and consulting. She holds a bachelor’s degree in financial management from Beijing University of Chemical Technology, a master’s in corporate finance from Central University of Finance and Economics as well as a Master of Professional Accountancy from Montana State University. You can find her on LinkedIn.

About the author: Laura Malm is a writer and editor with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and strategic communication from the University of Minnesota. She is passionate about financial literacy and helping others feel confident in th… Read more.