Allegra Hamer (above), state coordinator for Tax-Aide Alaska, works Wednesday on the first day of income tax help at Credit Union 1 in Mountain View. A team of IRS-certified volunteers helped more than 3,400 Alaskans file their taxes in 2022. Appointments can be made by dialing 2-1-1. Trevor Jones/United Way of Anchorage
Presented by United Way of Anchorage
Thousands of Alaskans received free help filing their tax returns last year, resulting in more than $4.6 million in refunds landing in bank accounts statewide.
This year, Alaska 2-1-1, United Way’s statewide helpline, is already fielding calls about tax assistance and connecting callers to AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide program. The program makes that call one of best investments in Alaska.
“Our goal is to help lift people out of poverty. And one way of doing that is getting people their refunds that they’re due,” said Joan Fisher, a volunteer partner and communications specialist with AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide program.
AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide program helps people across the U.S. by providing free tax preparation assistance. It’s part of an IRS grant and tax counseling program. Volunteers receive tax training and certification through the IRS.
Tax preparation help is completely free, available via appointment, walk-in, or online, and available throughout the tax season (Feb. 1 through April 18, 2023).
A team of IRS-certified volunteers helped more than 3,400 Alaskans file their taxes in 2022, said Allegra Hamer, state coordinator for Tax-Aide Alaska. The program expects to serve at least 30 percent more taxpayers in 2023.
“Our target audience is usually ages 50-and-up, and low to moderate income people. But we don’t turn anybody away,” Fisher said.
Fisher first learned about Tax-Aide while visiting the Anchorage Senior Center, where she saw volunteers with the program helping others with their taxes.
Fisher’s father in-law had passed away and she was handling paperwork for his affairs. “I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing it right,” she said. “It was stressful.”
“I thought, well, maybe I could ask them,” she said. “I went in, and they helped me file that final tax return.”
When she retired the following year, Fisher quickly grew bored. So, she decided to become an IRS-certified volunteer.
Volunteers help many people who speak English as a second language, she said; other clients don’t have internet access at their homes.
“It’s a barrier for low-income people,” Fisher said. “They can’t afford it.”
Millions of Americans are leaving tax credits behind
Many Alaska families may not be aware of all the tax credits available to them, some of which are worth potentially thousands of dollars in refunds.
The child tax credit and earned income credit help families cover essentials and support their children. Yet every year, millions of eligible Americans don’t claim these credits — a full 20 percent go unclaimed.
“The earned income tax credit is a big influx overall to households,” said Jane Straight, director of income and health impact at United Way.
People are less likely to claim the credit if they live in rural areas, are self-employed, not proficient in English, receive disability income, or if they had a recent change in marital or financial status, research has found.
Sometimes people don’t have to file a tax return, but they still qualify for an earned income tax credit, Straight said. In these instances, working with a volunteer can help greatly and may result in an unexpected windfall.
Volunteers can also help people file taxes from previous years, Straight said. Multiple years of tax credits can add up to potentially large refunds, and the filing always helps with peace of mind.
The IRS can be intimidating, and “sometimes people get overwhelmed,” Straight said.
“They might be able to find out that they missed out on getting a refund from last year and still file that return,” Straight said. “Those are the kinds of things that volunteers can help with.”
Straight advised folks to gather all their paperwork before meeting with a tax preparation volunteer. Some people’s tax returns may be too complicated to qualify for the program, but those are screened out during the initial interview.
There are three ways to get assistance. Appointments made through Alaska 2-1-1 are the preferred method, said Hamer. An appointment at a selected site ensures taxpayers receive assistance, rather than taking a chance on availability with a walk-in. Walk-ins are available at a few sites. A third option is to scan documents and pick them up at a later appointed time.
“Depending on the complexity of the tax return, the process usually lasts an hour,” said Cheryl Teller, longtime program volunteer and senior stakeholder relationship tax consultant with the IRS. “The great thing about the program is that there is always a seasoned reviewer to catch possible mistakes.”
Alaska 2-1-1 began managing appointments for the service during the pandemic. The 2-1-1 line provides referrals and information for local health and social service providers.
“They saved us,” Fisher said of the United Way team members who adapted to new restrictions and kept the tax help service going despite a global shutdown.
United Way of Anchorage’s partnerships enable more Alaskans to improve their financial outlook and get on track for a brighter future.
In Alaska, free tax preparation sites are open six days a week. There are 11 locations in Anchorage; four in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; one in Fairbanks, and one in Juneau.
Use the Tax-Aide locator to find assistance near you, or call Alaska 2-1-1 in-state, or toll-free at 1-800-478-2221.
Other partners help with the effort, as well.
The Alaska Business Development Corporation and Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority travel to rural communities to help clients complete their taxes and facilitate virtual and mail-in options, Teller said. The University of Alaska, Fairbanks, also runs a student-led program.
The Alaska Business Development Corporation helped file more than 5,000 Alaskans’ taxes last year, Teller said.
The team of volunteers helps a diverse group of Alaskans get quality tax return assistance, free of charge. One common thread among clients, no matter if they get a refund?
“Everybody is always very happy when they’re done getting their taxes completed,” Fisher said.
This story was sponsored by United Way of Anchorage thanks to a grant from ConocoPhillips Alaska. United Way of Anchorage serves the community as a convener, funder, sustainable changemaker, and as a service provider. If you’d like to join hands with United Way in this work and learn how you can contribute, please visit LiveUnitedAnc.Org.
This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with United Way of Anchorage. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.