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Group has worked more than 2,100 tax filings in NWA, Fort Smith area

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Tax filers the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas areas who have waited until the last few weeks of tax season do not have to go it alone.

According to Susan Reehl, program director for WestArk RSVP, programs like hers are available to provide assistance to low income and senior populations in need of tax preparation assistance.

"We have two types of IRS grants," Reehl explained. "Tax counseling for the elderly, which lets us help people 60 or older regardless of income, and then we have a grant to help people who make $52,000 (per year) or less."

She said WestARK RSVP is also able to assist active duty military regardless of income, as well as the unemployed. An additional service available to earners with an income up to $58,000 is free state and federal tax preparation and eFiling through the RSVP website. The website also has information about hours of service, locations and other information.

While assistance is available to many, Reehl said ministers and farmers could not be serviced by the organization.

Reehl said for those seeking assistance in person, a so-called "super site" is open in Fort Smith, while an elderly tax counseling center is open in Rogers. So far, those two centers have already helped local residents reclaim millions in tax refunds.

"As of Friday afternoon, we had done 2,143 federal tax returns. We have just gone over the $3 million mark in refunds. And we've done $1.151 million in earned income tax credits."

While the program is open for households earning up to $52,000, Reehl said RSVP's average adjusted gross income for this year was just under $17,500, while the senior program open to all incomes for individuals over 60 was averaging an AGI of about $22,000.

Volunteer Manager Trish Walker said one of the changes that has impacted refunds this year has been the change in standard deductions, making it more difficult for low income individuals to itemize and claim higher tax refunds.

"The standard deductions have gotten quite high now. The standard deduction is like $12,200 (for married couples). A single person is $6,100. The head of household is $8,950."

She said the difficulty is also because the deductions do not kick in until the total has surpassed the first 10% of income, while it was previously 7.5%. In addition to the standard deductions bringing both confusion and frustration, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) has brought a lot of confusion. According to Walker, many people have asked about penalties for not having insurance coverage.

"Obamacare will effect (tax filers) in (tax year) 2014, the tax return that you file beginning in 2015," she said. "If you can prove that you had some sort of insurance. If they have it through their employer, it will be coded with a 'DD.'"

Should tax filers not obtain health insurance before March 31 of this year, which is next Monday, she said the resulting tax penalties could leave many with an empty wallet.

"That penalty will either reduce the refund or could cause a balance due on the return."

Speaking of owing the IRS, Walker said filers expecting to owe taxes should not wait until April 14 or 15 to file their returns.

"If they suspect that they are going to owe, they don't need to wait until the last minute. What I've seen in a lot of situations is they owe federal, but get a refund on state," she said, adding that filing early could enable easier payment to the federal government by using the possible state refund.

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Should someone owe the government money but is unable to pay, Walker did say that payment plans are available, which RSVP can notify filers of at the time of filing. She added that penalties will be assessed, though they can be greatly reduced should a filer be able to pay a large amount of the taxes due at the time they arrange payment.

Reehl said anyone seeking to use WestArk RSVP should bring all tax forms (i.e. W-2, 1099, etc.), as well as the Social Security card of anyone to be included on the tax return. Primary filers and their spouses should also bring a photo ID, as well. As for anyone fearing the tax filing process, Reehl said there was no need to stress.

"They get treated well. The volunteers are very kind and very accurate."

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