Duke Law School Students Offer Free Tax Preparation

Eligible employees can get taxes prepared at several locations, including on campus

Clifton Coufal, right, a second-year Duke Law School student, helps Maria Burt with her tax return. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

Maria Burt pulled papers from her messenger bag and handed them to the Duke Law student who would help her file taxes this season.

"Do you want to file electronically or by paper?" asked Clifton Coufal, the student.

"Oh, I want that refund to go straight into my bank account," said Burt, a financial care counselor for the Department of Psychiatry. "It's going to pay for my vacation to the Dominican Republic."

Burt was the first of 18 clients who received tax preparation services Jan. 27 from Duke Law School volunteers as part of this year's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, known as VITA. Duke employees and Durham residents who meet certain lower income thresholds are eligible for the services. Appointments are now being accepted for tax preparation through April 7.

Services are provided at several locations, including the Duke Credit Union on Erwin Road and International House on campus. All of the tax preparation volunteers complete at least two training sessions from the Internal Revenue Service to learn special IRS software and ethics of tax preparation.

Kim Burrucker, director of public interest and pro bono for Duke Law and administrative advisor for VITA, said the program has been well received in Durham over the years. Last year, volunteers completed more than 270 returns and netted over $367,000 in refunds for clients. The size of a client's refund is driven largely by the tax credits they can claim. In 2011, VITA helped clients claim more than $240,000 in credits. 

VITA works with clients to determine eligible credits and suggest changes clients can make to reduce the amount they will owe next season, Burrucker said. 

"When a client leaves with handshakes and hugs, we know we have made a difference," she said. "When that client returns with cookies for the volunteers, we really understand how big a difference we have made."

Coufal, who is in his second year at Duke Law, volunteered for the first time this season because he wants to make a difference in the community by helping individuals navigate often complex codes.

"There's no reason for someone to pay more than they have to, particularly when they may need the money for other expenses," he said.At the end of his 30-minute appointment with Burt, Coufal handed her an IRS Form 1040 to sign.

"It is real convenient," Burt said. "With free tax preparation right here, why should anyone go anywhere else?"