PUBLISHED:April 21, 2008

Duke Law students offer free tax assistance to low-income taxpayers

April 21, 2008 — Duke Law students continued a long-standing school tradition this year by offering tax preparation assistance to low-income taxpayers in Durham through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA). Trained student volunteers assisted 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 2007 tax period, filing claims for $262,208 in federal and state refunds, and over $50,000 in earned income credit.

Thirty-six 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, worked at several sites in central Durham, including the Duke Federal Credit Union, El Centro Hispano, and E.K. Powe Elementary School.

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

Yaniv Adar has volunteered for VITA for three years 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, said she 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 trained eight hours for their certification. Working as their schedules allowed, they prepared the returns on site, brought them back to the law school, and selected members of the executive committee go through each return. The returns were then transmitted electronically, which means faster refunds for filers, and 24 hours later, Burrucker received acknowledgement of acceptance or rejection from the IRS.

“If a return was rejected, we found out why and fixed it. At the IRS, a tax specialist was available to us at all times,” she said. “If it was an unusual case, we all looked at it — we didn’t want to send our clients to a paid provider unless we had 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 had volunteers who spoke Spanish and prepared taxes in Spanish. There were others who were willing to go simply as translators. El Centro provided translators as needed, and El Kilombo Intergalactica did 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.” -Debbie Selinsky