Free Tax Preparation Available Jan. 25-April 5

Duke Law School volunteers offer tax help to eligible households

Belinda Malette gathers the paperwork she'll need for her appointment for free tax preparation with VITA. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

During last year's tax season, Belinda Malette tried to calculate tax credits for her daughter's college education but gave up after several pages of IRS instructions. 

To ensure she caught every tax saving opportunity, Malette turned to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) offered through the Duke Law School. 

"For me, the most challenging part of doing taxes is that the guidelines and requirements for deductions and credits change every year," said Malette, an administrative secretary for the Medical Center's Facility Planning, Design and Construction Office.

This year's VITA program begins on January 25 and runs through April 5. To qualify for free tax preparation services, Duke employees must have a household adjusted gross income of $51,000 or less. The annual student-run program is also offered to households in the Durham community. 

"Filling out taxes can be intimidating, but our goal is to help people get a fast, accurate refund without having to pay someone," said Kim Burrucker, director of public interest and pro bono for Duke Law and administrative coordinator for VITA. "The only fee we ask for is a smile and a thank-you." VITA offers three ways to access assistance this year: 

  • Full service preparation: Volunteers will offer face-to-face meetings with clients most Fridays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. during February and March at the Duke Federal Credit Union, 2200 West Main St. in Durham, and some evening and weekend hours at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at 1415 Faber St. Visit sites.duke.edu/dukelawvita for dates, times, and instructions on how to make an appointment.
  • Drop off service: Clients can bring copies of all tax documents to a tax preparation site, fill out an intake form, answer a few questions and then return at a designated time to review the completed tax returns.
  • Facilitated Self-Assistance: Eligible clients with simple tax returns can take advantage of a new online IRS initiative. With Facilitated Self-Assistance, taxpayers prepare their returns using online interview-based software with VITA volunteers offering assistance by email. To begin using the self-assist program, visit myfreetaxes.com/DukeLawVITA.  The eligibility level for facilitated self-assistance is a taxable family income of $57,000 or less.

Last year, 40 Duke Law VITA volunteers completed over 280 returns, netting about $285,000 in refunds for clients. This year, approximately 50 law school students are taking the IRS training for VITA volunteers, which involves several hours of online learning and passing IRS certification tests. 

Nicholas Atallah, a second year law student who volunteered last year, said the program is a rewarding way to take a break from the stress of school by helping others. 

"Taxes stress people out," he said. "It's great to be able to do something for them, and to learn a lot about tax law in the process."

Malette, the administrative secretary, has used the VITA services for three years and said she appreciates the time and compassion the students offer to the community. 

"They are patient, ready to answer any of my questions, and eager to help," she said. "Without them, I wouldn't be confident my taxes were done right."

Visit the VITA website or call (919) 613-8526 for a full schedule, appointment information and a list of documentation to bring. Although volunteers will serve walk-in clients if possible, clients with appointments get priority service, and no walk-ins are accepted in the last hour of each day's session.