In 1959, Congress discovered the tax code law was too complicated for the average citizen (there’s a surprise), so it commissioned the Internal Revenue Service to start a volunteer-based program to help the public complete tax forms. VITA, or Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, serves people with annual incomes of less than $50,000, anyone with a physical disability, non-English-speaking citizens, and people older than 55. The IRS trains the volunteers and stations VITA sites in libraries, schools, and malls.
Dr. Harold Branstrator, assistant professor of business administration at Milligan College in Tennessee, worked as a revenue agent and VITA trainer before joining the academic world. In 2009 he launched a VITA program at Milligan, and this year dozens of Milligan students prepared hundreds of tax returns for area residents. This year’s program featured seven sites with services offered Monday through Thursday and on Saturday mornings.
Before volunteering, students must take a course and pass four exams. They receive no payment for their work, but can earn community service credits.
“Milligan’s VITA site has become one of the strongest in the Southeast, more than quadrupling in returns prepared the last two years,” Branstrator said. “We see this as a ministry of justice to low- and moderate-income taxpayers. Our volunteers are competent, courteous, and respectful, and we have a near-zero error rate, much lower than the average for paid preparers.”
The program also saves the average client $200 or more—certainly adding to the credibility and popularity of the program in the community.