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Student Experts Share Tax Tips Everyone Should Know

Expert advice from accounting and law students who volunteer as certified tax preparers through a state program to assist low-income Rhode Islanders filing tax returns

Editor's note: This story is part of the 10 on Tuesday series, which provides a fresh take on interesting university initiatives, research projects, campus happenings and more.

BRISTOL, R.I. – Why suffer through figuring out what information to enter to maximize your tax return – or whether a critical piece of financial history was overlooked – when there are experts available to navigate the complexities of tax season?

Roger Williams University accounting and law students are here to help ease the burden for low-income Rhode Islanders at IRS-sponsored sites throughout the state  via the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) program. Fully trained, the 58 student volunteers for this tax season were certified through the IRS as tax preparers prior to applying their new expertise. Some law students are even trained in advanced tax preparation and military tax preparation.

(For information on who qualifies for assistance through a Rhode Island VITA program, as well as where help can be found, visit www.provvita.org/.)

Taking time out of their schedule of facilitating tax returns, three of this year’s volunteers offer their expert advice on the tax tips everyone should know:

  • According to Christopher Puig, a second-year law student, “It's better to be over-prepared than underprepared. Social Security cards and photo IDs are a must, but we appreciate having more information than less. So be sure to bring as much as you can for everyone mentioned on your return.”
     
  • “No question is a dumb question. The tax guy is there to help you,” advises Derek Barton, a junior accounting major. “Even if it seems petty, ask if it's needed.”
     
  • Andrew Aleman, a second-year law student, recommends saving your tax records for the last three years. Put all related tax information – returns and supporting documents – in a dated envelope and store it with other important documents.
     
  • Withholding information from the tax preparer will only do a disservice to the person filing a return, Barton says. “We're here to help you, not hurt you. Tell us everything so that we can get you the maximum return.”
     
  • Aleman offers an important piece of information for students and parents: it may be possible to claim educational expenses, like books and tuition, to boost a refund. “The American Opportunity Tax Credit is a refundable credit that helps reduce the cost of school. So make sure to have those receipts and a tax form from the school.”
     
  • But in order to capitalize on the American Opportunity Tax Credit – or any credits – Barton suggests collaborating on tax information with your family members. “Depending on who claims who can determine the total amount of the return. So ask questions and collaborate to get the maximum amount possible.”
     
  • For those who stress over the process itself, have no fear, Puig says. “Your tax preparer is trained to get you the best return possible. You're in good hands.”
     
  • How much tax withholding to claim varies for each person – and is a constant source of frustration and confusion for taxpayers. Aleman’s advice is simple: allowances should “match what you make” and that can be determined by following the instructions carefully when filling out a W-4. Where it gets tricky is deciphering the withholding amounts for more than one job, particularly for those holding multiple small jobs throughout the year. In that situation, he recommends decreasing the allowances for one of the jobs in order to not owe money at the end of the year. “The reason is that a W-4 only accounts for that particular job and doesn't take into account other jobs where you are making money. It’s important to remember that when you get a refund, that is money that you loaned to the government, interest-free. You always want to strike a perfect balance.”
     
  • Made only a small amount of income last year? Barton urges you to file anyway – especially for full-time students, who spend more time studying than working to earn an income. “Even though you made little money, you will still get some money back – and some money is better than none.”
     
  • And finally, Aleman cautions to avoid scams – special deals on tax preparation, a free e-file, or the ones that promise a refund today. “All federal income tax returns are processed the same way. For example, “get your refund now” scams don't give you your federal return today – they give you a loan. And read the fine print on those special advertised deals.”

Each week, the 10 on Tuesday series provides a fresh take on interesting university initiatives, research projects, campus happenings and more. Have an idea for a 10 on Tuesday? Email pdq@rwu.edu