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As promised, here is VITA Musing #1. I'll stick with that title even though as it turns out, I'm a TCE guy-in-training, not a VITA guy-in-training. TCE is Tax Counseling for the Elderly; VITA is Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. TCE and VITA counselors do pretty much the same thing, they just have different clientele. TCE tends to be older people, with pension-type income (annuities, Social Security). VITA is more likely low-income clients (wage earners). But there's considerable overlap, and I have been assured that I will have plenty of both kinds of customers. Our particular site runs from a large senior citizen center, and is one of two so-called "super sites" in the state.

Anyway, we've finished with the tax part of the training, both federal and state. This consisted mainly of going through all the forms, schedules, and worksheets, line by line, and working some examples. I was pleased to discover that the stuff I know, I know very well. That is, I'm very knowledgeable about the things that show up on my return: wage and annuity income, homeowner-type deductions, capital gains and losses, cash and noncash charitable contributions, and nondeductible IRAs. Indeed, I knew a few things the instructor didn't know.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well: I don't know diddley about stuff that doesn't affect me, because I haven't had occasion to learn about it. I suppose that shouldn't be a surprise, but still, I'm stunned at how much there is, and how freakin' complicated it is! What village idiot dreamed up the Earned Income Credit? And alas, many of these credits (Earned Income, Child and Dependent Care, Credit for the Elderly, and two different Child Tax Credits) will be applicable to many of our customers. That's kind of alarming to me - you sure don't want to miss something that would be useful to someone, old or young, who's living kind of close to the edge and to whom an extra few hundred dollars might be significant.

Just the same, I've gone most of the way through the very thick workbook we have, and I've worked and turned in a test on the material. Assuming I did reasonably well, I am qualified to help others with their taxes. I am glad to see that we simply put the notation "TCE" on returns, and bear no personal liability or responsibility for the final product. (But that's not all that consoling. The people we'll be helping are not comfortable with taxes, and are counting on us to get it right. So things like credits and the correct filing status are important.) Oh well, do the best you can! At least there is an independent check by an experienced counselor - he/she looks over the taxpayer's documents and the prepared return as a sort of sanity check. Presumably, that checker will detect gross errors... And it's good to know that we decline to do complicated returns. We don't do anything with rents, royalties, or partnerships, with self-employment income beyond a C-EZ, with casualty/theft losses, with very complex stock transactions (no day traders!), and with non-cash contributions beyond $500 (which would trigger Form 8283).

What remains is computer training. We're using a pretty slick, professional program called TaxWise, which is sort of TurboTax on steroids. Very thorough, and it looks like it will be very easy to use. So far, we've just sat and watched the instructor go through a cooked-up example on the computer. Later this week and next we will work hands-on with the program, and work three computer test problems. I don't see that as being particularly difficult. One of the benefits of being a VITA/TCE volunteer is that we can install the program on our home computers to do our own returns, to include efiling through the TCE site. That will be useful.

Finally, assuming the computer training goes well, I will begin with real, live customers in early February. Apparently the pace picks up steadily and peaks in mid-March, then tapers off towards April. (Most of our clients are the elderly, who tend to be conscientious and eager to get this over with. So not much in the way of a last-minute crush.) Our requirement is to work something like 5-6 hours per week. I will probably volunteer to do more than that, as my wife is most anxious to get me out of the house and it's too damn cold for golf.

Lorenzo, TCE guy-in-training
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