Get help with tax returns

Moderate to low-income taxpayers of any age can get their taxes prepared and filed instantly for free at sites around Jackson County, thanks to the AARP and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance.

The wait can be long at times, but some sites take reservations and organizers say the actual filing takes about 20 to 60 minutes, depending on how complicated your taxes are. Taxes are then e-filed directly to the Internal Revenue Service, ensuring a faster refund deposited directly to your account when you're due one.

Trained volunteers for the AARP's Tax Counseling for the Elderly process about 3,000 returns in the county, and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance handles about 100, says Jan Taylor, community engagement director of United Way of Jackson County.

"We've come here for years and found them always very helpful," Chandra Miller said after a session with Tax Counseling for the Elderly at The Grove in Ashland. "I did an estimated run-through online, and I came out better here. It's very straightforward. We had to wait two hours, but my husband went back and forth with the kids and bringing me coffee. It's a big relief to get it behind us."

Site coordinator Darlene Steffani says the process often takes as little as 15 minutes, depending on additional forms, but sometimes filers have to be sent home if they don't have their actual Social Security cards and picture identification, now demanded by the IRS to help ward off identity theft.

Filers also must bring last year's tax returns, W-2s, 1099s, all income, expense and deduction records and any joint filer.

AARP has provided the service here for decades, says Steffani, so filers can expect them to catch all due benefits and to quality-audit each return twice before it's e-filed.

AARP "likes serving people," she says, ticking off many other free services offered by the organization, such as bill-paying preparation, even if you are not a member.

"We're all fully trained and certified," volunteer Rick Sparks says. "We focus on seniors and low- to moderate-income filers, but we take anyone of any income."

However, Sparks adds, they won't work on returns with rental properties, depreciation, limited liability partnerships or other complicated matters.

Volunteers use laptop computers supplied by the IRS and its TaxWise program. They get 30 hours of training in January, says Mary Ellen De Luca, a volunteer with a degree in accounting.

"For the cost, which is zero, I don't mind waiting two hours," says Southern Oregon University student Miguel Pena.

"I was sent here by H&R Block," says Warren Holden, a part-time gas station attendant. "I made $811 last year, and the lady there said she couldn't see charging me $75 to do it."

Volunteers are "trained up to a certain level" and do not know as much as accountants, says Taylor, "and they will tell you that. You come in and fill out an interview sheet about what's going on with your finances to see if it's anything they can't handle. If so, they will tell you to see a professional tax preparer."

An estimated $6 million would come into the valley if all the tax credits due were claimed, Taylor says.

"One Head Start employee got enough of a refund for a down payment on her house, and another guy was able to go out and buy a new car," Taylor says. "It can do marvelous things. The Earned Income Credit, especially, is great. It's the biggest anti-poverty program in the nation."

The hours and locations of the sites, which include the Rogue Valley Mall, Medford Senior Center, Rogue Family Center and the Talent and Phoenix libraries, can be found on the United Way website at

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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