Deborah Keyworth, an East Lansing resident and registered nurse who is disabled and recently divorced, found last year that not all tax returns are done correctly—even if you pay for the service. So, she turned to a local program for help.
Adam Kogelschatz, a senior accounting major in the MSU Eli Broad College of Business, is leading 120 accounting student volunteers in that IRS program— Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) that serves those with lower to moderate incomes.
The student volunteers help anyone whose household incomes is less than $53,000 with their simple tax returns, alleviating some of the issues associated with tax time.
As a way to give something back to the community, Kogelschatz began working with VITA three years ago as general tax preparer as a way to give something back to the community. This year he is president of the board, which organizes volunteers and training.
He’s excited about the positive changes being made under his leadership that include additional training to help the volunteer tax preparers understand all aspects of the job, as well as being a model site for how process changes are being implemented. And he’s amazed by the excitement of the volunteers.
But most of all, Kogelschatz is excited by the opportunity to help others.
“The individual impacts can be huge,” he said, recalling a tax return that was done for a single mom with three children who received a much greater return than expected—and what that meant to her family. “She was in tears,” he said.
Keyworth connected with the VITA program after her own accountant and attorney could not answer some questions with her return, she said. This year, she came directly to the student center being operated at Deerpath Apartments in East Lansing. Students work with clients by appointments in the evenings from the community center at the complex, which will be open through April 15.
“This is a great resource for someone in my position,” Keyworth said, adding she would not have known what to do with the issues in her return last year if it had not been for the answers she received by phone from the VITA program.
Susan Stoneman of Haslett has used the program for more years than she can remember. “It’s very beneficial to me and they (the preparers) are so knowledgeable,” she said.
Helping the clients is the greatest draw, Kogelschatz said, but students also gain valuable job experience.
“As accounting students we get to do community service, and that is huge today in the push for corporate responsibility,” Kogelschatz said. “We are meeting with clients and preparing their taxes. And when you’re talking to people about their money, you have to stay professional.”
The work is always new—it’s not likely a volunteer worked with one of the clients before—so there is a lot of quick assessment that must take place. That includes building trust in that short meeting.
Another aspect of the job is staying calm when you have to explain to someone that you cannot file a tax return from him or her because you determine they are not giving you correct information. That’s where knowing the tax laws—and where some of the additional training that the Kogelschatz team added helps the volunteers.
An example was a man, who wanted to claim a child as a dependent, but his mother was claiming the man as a dependent—a dependent of someone else cannot claim a dependent of his own.
Overall, the work with VITA is rewarding. Last year, $4 million came back to the Lansing area through the VITA program, Kogelschatz said, adding that $1.3 million of that was in earned income tax credit.
VITA is operated locally through Asset Independence Coalition (AIC) of Lansing, which handles the administrative aspects of the program with the IRS.