Law Students Prepare Record Number of Tax Returns for Charlottesville Families, Students
University of Virginia undergraduate volunteer Jennifer Golden helps a Charlottesville-area resident prepare his taxes. Undergraduate volunteers have been working with UVA law students to prepare taxes for nearly 800 low- and moderate-income local residents and students.
On the second floor of a University of Virginia office building on Emmet Street, first-year UVA Law student Sarah Reilly is preparing a tax return for Jason Kuhn, a chemistry grad student at UVA, and entering his information into the software program TaxWise.
"This was your only income, correct?" Reilly asks, pointing at a figure on her screen.
"That's right," Kuhn replied.
Behind them, at another pair of desks, second-year law student Jill Pritzker is preparing the tax return of a Charlottesville resident. And a few rows back, second-year law student Chris Lisieski is reviewing the accuracy of a fourth-year UVA student's tax return.
Reilly, Pritzker and Lisieski are among 38 UVA law students who have been providing free federal and state tax preparation services for Charlottesville-area taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes of $50,000 or less.
The law students are members of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program at Virginia Law, which works in cooperation with dozens of undergraduate UVA volunteers from Creating Assets, Savings and Hope at Madison House. The organizations provide free tax preparation services under the sponsorship of a nationwide Internal Revenue Service volunteer program.
"It's been a really good experience for me. It's my first year doing it," Pritzker said. "I'm also taking federal income tax at the Law School so it's been nice to put what I'm learning in the classroom to practical use and to help people. I learn something new every time I fill out a return because everyone has a different situation."
As of Monday, the volunteers from the two organizations had filed 757 federal returns and 762 state returns on behalf of low- and moderate-income households, the elderly and disabled families, along with undergraduate and graduate students.
By the end of next week, the volunteers will have served an estimated 800 clients, saving them an estimated $160,000 in tax prep fees.
Additionally, as of early this week, the volunteers had secured for their clients roughly $756,000 in federal refunds and $118,000 in state refunds. Last year, federal refunds totaled $465,000 and state refunds totaled $73,000.
"We've seen a huge increase in the amount refunded, and also a pretty large increase in the number of returns filed," said Patrick Bernhardt, a third-year law student and the outgoing president of VITA at Virginia Law. "Each year, we're seeing more and more returning clients."
VITA at Virginia Law and CASH have been providing free tax preparation services to the local community since at least 2004. The number of clients has continued to grow, Bernhardt said, as word of mouth continues to travel, as clients return and as the organizations have ramped up their advertising and outreach efforts.
The program is thriving among law students, Bernhardt said, because it offers a chance to gain a familiarity and knowledge of tax laws and regulations, as well as an opportunity to work directly with clients.
"It allows us to deal with complex client issues, where we might have to look [something up in] the resources that the IRS provides or maybe look into the law and see what the client needs to file in order to comply," he said.
The program also allows participants to manage and lead an entirely student-run pro bono program.
"We coordinate with local partners, we coordinate with the University's Human Resources Department, we coordinate with the IRS," Bernhardt said. "We maintain the electronic database, operate our advertising campaigns, file the [tax] paperwork and keep the client records. It offers really great leadership and public service opportunities."
By the end of this tax season, which will wrap up on Monday's tax filing deadline, Bernhardt estimates that this year's UVA Law volunteers will have contributed a total 1,000 hours of pro bono service as part of the program.
For Reilly, volunteering to prepare Charlottesville-area residents' taxes was also a chance to meet new people.
"We get a lot of grad students, so it's nice to be able to meet some people from other schools and help them out," she said. "People are very appreciative of it because taxes can be pretty intimidating."
Plus, she added, it may come in handy for her studies at the Law School.
"I'm planning on taking Federal Income Tax in the fall," she said. "So I think it'll probably be nice to have done this."
The students will continue to provide the tax prep services until Monday, April 15, at UVA's Michie Building North, 918 Emmet Street North in Charlottesville. For details, qualifications or to schedule an appointment, go to www.vitavirginia.org.