Law students tackle tax returns – for free

Got your 1099? Your W-2? How about railroad benefits? Do you know on which line you report your scholarships or retirement income or how to determine your earned income eligibility?

Luckily, we’ve got some pretty smart students for that.

The University of South Carolina School of Law has provided free basic assistance with federal and state tax returns to folks through the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program for 23 years.

“They are very patient with me and my mess,” a middle school teacher, surrounded by a small mountain of paperwork and receipts, said of the volunteers helping with her return.

To qualify for help, folks must make less than $52,000 a year and have fairly simple returns. Those seeking help include teachers, cafeteria workers, retirees and fellow college students.

“We don’t do capital gains schedules or self-employment returns,” says Pam Robinson, longtime director of the law school’s award-winning Pro Bono Program. The program helps folks who might feel overwhelmed by the myriad of questions and the number of forms required to properly fill out a tax return.

There are three dozen of these questions that each volunteer asks and explains to each person seeking assistance. By the end of the question round, the volunteers get to know the people they are helping and vice versa.

“We have some people who come back year after year, and they will keep up with the students, asking about students who have graduated,” Robinson said.

One such volunteer, 25-year-old Daniel Craig, worked all three years of law school in the program before graduating last year. A staff attorney at the S.C. Supreme Court, Craig came back to help out while most students were off for spring break.

“We have a moral obligation as attorneys to give back to our community,” says Craig, who also earned his bachelor’s degree in business from Carolina.

First-year law student David Pace, 25, of Dallas says he has always been involved in nonprofit organizations. “I just enjoy helping out the community,” he says. “Plus, I have an interest in tax law.”

The students do initial interviews with clients to be sure they are eligible for the service and have all the paperwork they need to complete their returns. Some folks might have to return another day to complete the work.

The students then go through the laundry list of questions before turning the file over to someone who enters information into the electronic return. Once the return is complete, a third person reviews it and files it online.

“Even those that have to pay, they’re glad to have it done and done accurately,” Robinson says.

Students also offer suggestions about adjusting the amount of federal tax withholding for people who have to pay or who have too large of a return.

“Some folks think it’s great to get a big return, but we remind them that’s their money and the government has been using it all year,” Robinson says. “We tell them, ‘The government has more money than you do, you might want to get more of it in your check.’ ”

If you need help

The VITA Program is intended to offer free tax help to people who make $52,000 or less and need assistance in preparing their own tax returns. Our student volunteers offer help 5:30-8 p.m. Wednesdays and 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays in the law school lobby.

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