Duke Law students continue annual service of free tax assistance to low-income taxpayers

March 21, 2008Duke Law News

March 20, 2008 — Duke Law students are continuing a long-standing school tradition by offering tax preparation assistance to low-income taxpayers in Durham through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA). Trained student volunteers will assist residents who earn less than $35,000 per year.

Now one of Duke Law’s largest pro bono programs, VITA helped 218 Durham residents during the 2006 tax period, filing claims for $236,192 in federal refunds, $20,093 in state refunds, and almost $50,000 in earned income credit.

About 30 IRS-trained student volunteers, under the direction of Director of Public Interest and Pro Bono Kim Burrucker and Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Christopher McLaughlin, are now working at several sites in central Durham, including the Duke Federal Credit Union, El Centro Hispano, and E.K. Powe Elementary School.

This service could be particularly helpful this year, McLaughin observed. “Even if they earned too little to owe any federal income tax, taxpayers should still file federal returns for 2007 to make sure they qualify for the federal government’s new ‘stimulus’ tax rebate program.”

Law student Yaniv Adar is in his third year as a VITA volunteer and serves on the organization’s executive committee. “Although I don’t plan on a career in tax law, I am interested in giving back to the community in which I am a guest for four years,” said the Miami native. “I’m thrilled to be a part of VITA.” Adar is pursuing degrees in both law and public policy at Duke.

Third-year student Ramie O’Neill, another three-year VITA volunteer, takes satisfaction in what she calls “direct impact” service. “This is a practical way of volunteering — it’s not a problem that can’t be solved. At the end of the day, I can say, ‘Today, I helped five people save hundreds of dollars.’”

VITA volunteers train eight hours for their certification. Working as their schedules allow, they prepare the returns on site, bring them back to the law school, and select members of the executive committee go through each return. The returns are transmitted electronically, which means faster refunds for filers, and 24 hours later, Burrucker receives acknowledgement of acceptance or rejection from the IRS.

“If a return is rejected, we find out why and fix it. At the IRS, a tax specialist is available to us at all times,” she said. “If it’s an unusual case, we all look at it—we don’t want to send our clients to a paid provider unless we have to.” Burrucker added that VITA’s process becomes more streamlined and efficient each year.

An important focus of the VITA program is serving the growing Latino community in Durham, Burrucker said. “We have volunteers who speak Spanish and prepare taxes in Spanish. There are others who are willing to go simply as translators. El Centro provides translators as needed, and El Kilombo Intergalactica does as well.”

McLaughlin, who has done pro bono work with the program since 2003 views students’ involvement in the community as important as their preparation of tax returns. The ancillary skills they develop are also essential to their development as attorneys, he said. “More generally, the students helping to run our VITA effort develop organizational and teaching skills that will benefit them regardless of the area of law in which they eventually practice.”

All VITA sites and schedules are available at www.law.duke.edu/student/act/vita/index.

-Debbie Selinsky
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