Tax law changes send more people in search of free help

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PITTSFIELD — More residents of the Berkshires are seeking free help preparing their income tax returns, driven in part by uncertainty over what's new this year.

With four weeks to go before a return come due, area programs that provide Volunteer Income Tax Assistance are still accepting appointments.

VITA program staffers say they are seeing new clients who didn't feel comfortable doing the returns themselves this time around, in light of changes prompted by the 2017 tax legislation.

For instance, an increase in the value of the standard deduction — to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly — means far fewer people will find it helpful to itemize their deductions.

Julie Golin, manager of marketing and communications for the Berkshire United Way, said that in the six years her agency has funded VITA programs in the region, use by clients has increased.

"Each year we see a higher volume of returns prepared by our funded partners," she said. "In addition to many new clients, we are also seeing a number of familiar faces."

To receive free help, a household must have an annual income of $55,000 or less. Elsewhere, free online filing options are available to people with higher annual incomes.

Golin said volunteer tax-preparers report their work is going faster this year, because fewer people are itemizing returns.

But speed isn't everything. Staff of one program said more first-time clients are opting to amend tax returns from earlier years, which is allowable, to capture gains from credits they didn't know about.

One such credit is known as the "circuit breaker." It makes up to $1,100 available to low-income people age 65 years or older who own or rent residential property and meet eligibility requirements. That credit is available even if they have no tax liability, Golin said.

Anecdotally, tax-preparers say few clients to date are poised to receive smaller refunds than last year.

As of the first week of March, the IRS said that the average refund check was $3,068, up 0.7 percent over the same week last year. Earlier weekly averages, which prompted many headlines about smaller checks, showed returns down from 2018.

As of Feb. 1, for instance, the average refund was $1,865 compared to $2,035 for the same week in 2018, off 8.4 percent. But Treasury officials noted that a relatively small number of returns generated that statistic and predicted that refunds would generally be larger in 2019.

To get help from VITA offices, call the Berkshire United Way at 413-442-6948 to make an appointment in southern Berkshire County; 413-442-0002 for central and northern locations; and 413-296-4536, Ext. 100, for eastern locations.

Golin said appointments are generally available within two to three weeks. The program at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has openings available.

Another option, she said, is the drop-off service provided by Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity. With that, clients can leave tax documents and sit for the intake process when it is convenient.

They do not have to be present when a VITA preparer completes the return, Golin said. Clients then return during VITA office hours to complete the process.

Where to find free VITA tax-prep help:

South

The Berkshire United Way provides Volunteer Income Tax Assistance services at the following South County locations. To make an appointment, call 413-442-6948.-

- October Mountain Financial Advisors

103 W. Park St., Lee

- Berkshire Community College South County Center

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343 Main St., Great Barrington

- Berkshire South Regional Community Center

15 Crissey Road, Great Barrington

- Community Health Programs

444 Stockbridge Road, Great Barrington

- Construct

41 Mahaiwe St., Great Barrington

Central and North

Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity provides VITA services at the following locations. For an appointment, 413-442-0002.

- MCLA

375 Church St., North Adams

- Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity

314 Columbus Ave., Pittsfield

East

The Hilltown Community Development Corp. provides VITA services at the following locations. For an appointment, call 413-296-4536, ext. 100.

- Helen E James School

16 Main St., Williamsburg

- Hilltown Community Development Center

387 Main Road, Chesterfield

- Village Enterprise Center

26a Main St., Chester

Other option

The Berkshire Community Action Council also provides VITA help.

To make an appointment, call 413-418-3685.


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