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This is the last installment in the continuing saga of Lorenzo, New TCE Guy. TCE is Tax Counseling for the Elderly, which is pretty much the same thing as VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), which Phil Marti frequently promotes on this board. There are three previous postings along these lines, numbers 62894, 62993, and 63854 on this board.

As Phil Marti noted in a recent post, It's Over! And so it is: I had tax and computer training in January, took and passed some tests, and then worked (generally one day a week, for about 5 hours) from the first week of February. My last day was Monday, April 14. In those two and a half months I prepared some 50-odd returns - three and sometimes four a day for clients at the local senior center where I worked, plus my own return, returns for my kids, and returns for a few friends.

It really was very interesting, and most rewarding. The clients at the senior center were a mixed bag: about half senior citizens (generally with not much more than social security and annuity income) and the other half low-income wage earners (generally with W-2 income, but also receiving assorted credits: child, additional child, earned income, child care, etc.) As I noted in an earlier post, the most stunning thing (to me) was in learning that there are an awful lot of people out there who get along on not very much income. Ok, I'm not all that naive, I knew there were lots of low-income folks around. I just didn't know there were so many in my community!

There were very few "routine" returns - almost always, there was something odd, or different, or new. Almost everyone was extraordinarily grateful for the help we provided. (Well, there was one difficult person, who got quite angry when she learned that TCE volunteers did not sign returns, but simply filled them out for taxpayers to sign. She wanted someone else to put their name to paper. She was told that in that case she'd have to go to a paid tax preparer, and I guess she did - in any case, she left our center in a grand huff.)

If anything, I found it difficult to be dispassionate. I genuinely enjoyed chatting with people as I did their returns - what they did, where they lived, where they were from. If I managed a nice refund for them, that was great. If they had to pay, I sort of felt that I had let them down, that I hadn't dug hard enough for tax breaks. And of course that's just silly - the facts and the rules are there, and you put them all together in a good-faith effort. Still, I felt awfully bad when I had to tell someone that they were short many hundreds of dollars, and even worse when they said something like, "I don't have that kind of money - what am I going to do?"

There were some nice moments:

- The woman who'd worried herself sick over the taxes she thought she'd have to pay on her share of the gain on a house that had been sold, and how relieved she was when I told her that her gain was excluded.

- The man whose federal and state returns I amended, recovering some $600 in taxes. (The previous week another counselor had erred badly, and fortunately the taxpayer looked closely at the numbers when he got home. We do make mistakes...)

- The young girl who had two miniscule dividend payments - 75 cents on one stock, a couple dollars on another. I questioned her about that, and she told me proudly that she'd purchased stock through employee stock purchase plans, and decided to just hang onto the stock even though she had moved on to another employer. I told her that she was doing exactly the right thing, and to just keep it up! (Ok, we really ought not to be giving financial advice - but I felt that someone needed to give this young lady a pat on the back.)

And some not so good moments:

- A woman who'd gone to a bogus tax preparer a year earlier. He'd gotten her some nice refunds by inventing completely phoney deductions, and had declined to sign her return because "he wasn't licensed" - but she still paid him a bundle. Of course, the state caught on and demanded their money back, with penalties to boot. I did the best I could with this year's returns. I didn't have the heart to tell her that the federal tax people are gonna catch up with those bogus returns one of these days.

- Another woman who hadn't filed at all for a few years. They caught up with her and wanted taxes, interest, and penalties. She said she simply couldn't pay, would have to get a 2nd mortgage but couldn't afford that. Then she started to cry, and it took some doing to get her settled down. Ok, she made some serious errors, and is directly responsible for her predicament - but I think she was one of those women who let hubby handle all the financial stuff, then he dies, and they don't have a clue. (I suggested that maybe she should explore an Offer in Compromise, and referred her to the CPA who oversees this volunteer program.)

---

I could go on and on, but this is long enough. All in all, it's been great! Consider this a warm endorsement for the volunteer programs, both VITA and TCE. If you're reading this board, you're interested in taxes, so give it a shot next year! I'm looking forward to resuming in nine months. In addition to helping with tax prep, I expect to be an efiler as well in 2004 (that is, forwarding taxpayer returns to federal/state databases and processing acknowledgements).

Lorenzo, TCE Guy
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