This local program helps vets prepare their taxes — for free
Do you hate doing your taxes and think of them as a confusing slog? Or are you an expert who others turn to for help every tax season?
Either way, this southern California-based program is looking for vets like you.
The Veteran Peer-to-Peer EITC Campaign, located in the greater Los Angeles area, offers veterans help preparing their tax returns. Who’s helping? Fellow veterans — who also happen to be trained tax preparers.
“We all kind of sit down and really focus on getting [our taxes] done,” said Ruth Christopherson, senior vice president with Citi Community Development. “It’s a lot of work; it’s nerve-wracking. When you can do it with a volunteer income-tax preparer, it’s easier.”
Most of the preparers are California State University, Northridge students, but the program also brings in other veterans from partner organizations and trains them to become IRS-certified tax preparers.
At that point, they are free to set up shop at one of CSUN’s 22 tax-preparation sites in southern California, which include nine dedicated to veterans. The sites are all managed and operated by the CSUN VITA Clinic, which specializes in helping low-income Californians prepare and file their taxes.
The Veteran Peer-to-Peer EITC Campaign is a collaboration between the university, Citi Community Development, the Los Angeles VA, the L.A. Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs and a few L.A.-based veterans service organizations. EITC stands for earned income tax credit, a benefit available to individuals and couples with low-to-moderate income.
Stephenson, who also works with Citi’s veterans initiative Citi Salutes, estimated that veterans who used the peer-to-peer program saved a combined $30,000 in fees by not having someone else prepare their taxes.
Raymond Bucci, a former Marine sergeant and current CSUN accounting student, is now a peer-to-peer tax preparer. He joined the program both to get hands-on experience in the field of tax preparation and to help his fellow veterans who may be clueless about how to get the most out of their tax returns.
“Unfortunately, people just know, ‘Oh I got this W2 form. What do I do now?’” he said. “As far as any credits out there for them … they don’t know how taxes work in general.”
He said that his clients usually don’t know what to bring with them to make tax preparation a smooth process. They also sometimes present unique filing challenges, like veteran business-owners who did a poor job of keeping track of their expenses from the previous year.
Occasionally, according to Bucci, a veteran will come in who hasn’t filed taxes in years. He said he is usually able to fix those situations and help those folks get refunds from prior years.
Leon Pikor, a former Coast Guard petty officer, has used the peer-to-peer program before and found it helpful. He had mostly relied on online tax-filing options like TurboTax and H&R Block in the past and said this program’s affiliation with the VA and CSUN gave it some legitimacy for him.
“It has a good, trustworthy position,” Pikor said.
He said that the program taught him valuable lessons on filing his taxes and that he would recommend it to his fellow veterans. Pikor also appreciated that filing with his peers was “more personal” than online tax-prep services.
Citi’s Christopherson agreed that face time with a human preparer was one of the advantages of peer-to-peer over using an online portal to prepare taxes.
“They’re building relationships beyond just getting that income tax credit back and having someone to help with the taxes,” she said. “They’ve built that sense of camaraderie in that area.”
Another benefit, according to Bucci: It ensures that “you have multiple eyes looking at the same return,” which minimizes the chances of making mistakes that could potentially lead to an audit.
He also mentioned that the experience he gained as a tax preparer helped him land an internship at BPE&H, an accounting firm in Woodland Hills, Calif.
“It’s the main reason I got this internship that I’m at,” he said. “Military experience is great, there’s no doubting that. As far as industry-related experience, it’s kind of hard to obtain that. It was just a great help in getting me in the door.”
Stephenson believes the peer-to-per model is replicable and said that Citi is already looking to expand into northern California and potentially even the Washington, D.C., area.
She urged veterans to seek out their local VITA sites to make sure they get the most out of their tax returns.
“Reach out, ask for help, work with somebody,” she said. “We’re reaching out to veterans and helping them become more stable … We certainly are proud to help those who have served us.”