Tax Prep Dispatch: I Hereby Pledge

Yes, VITA ended up with a 98% accuracy rate for the 2019 filing season and that’s wonderful. But keeping up that level of success is an ongoing project. We must be vigilant about quality and maintain our efforts to continue this superb success. One way to keep the gang committed to high quality tax preparation is taking the Quality Assurance Pledge. Developed by TON’s Quality Assurance Working Group, the pledge is a summary of what experienced VITA practitioners have determined are the main things that programs can do in order to improve and maintain quality. This is not the same as the IRS Quality Site Requirements - although there certainly are similarities. The pledge is what knowledgeable, veteran VITA preparers have decided is at the heart of a VITA program that achieves the highest quality tax return preparation.

Here’s each facet of the pledge, followed by some practical commentary.

Quality Assurance Pledge

As a member of the Taxpayer Opportunity Network I am committed to the highest quality of tax return preparation. I pledge to:

Use an intake and interview process for all tax returns prepared.

Imagine you’re at a tax site, with a roomful of clients anxiously waiting for their turn to get their tax returns prepared. These taxpayers have relevant documents and a pretty good idea of what happened during the tax year: who lived where, who paid for what, how much they drove, what money they had coming in and what expenses they paid, etc. The challenge is to get the information from the taxpayer that is needed to do a complete and accurate return. The way to do that is the intake and interview process—with an emphasis on the interview. Looking at tax documents and completed intake forms is critical, but not enough. Talk to the taxpayer!

Ensure that only trained and certified volunteers answer tax questions, prepare tax returns and review returns.

Everybody needs to be trained on relevant issues and then handle only those issues. Examples:

  • A greeter who is trained and certified only in Volunteer Standards of Conduct may be friendly, smart, organized and energetic. But inevitably someone will ask that greeter a tax preparation question, e.g., “I have this 1099 income form from the rideshare company. Do I need anything else?” Greeters need tax knowledge—ideally at the advanced level—or else they need to know to always refer any tax preparation questions to someone who is thoroughly trained.
  • A tax preparer who encounters a new issue may think, “I’ll try it and see what the software does.” Quite tempting, but preparers must never guess or depend solely on the software to figure things out.

Prepare only tax returns within the scope of our volunteers’ training and ability.

Folks at VITA sites need to wrap their heads around the fact that we can’t help everyone. At the very least, limit the tax issues you handle to what’s within the scope set by IRS SPEC. Yes, it’s difficult, but sites must learn to say, “no.”  It might even be helpful to practice saying “no” during training or provide sample scripts to intake personnel. Tax law is a huge ever-changing topic, fraught with complications that really shouldn’t be addressed at a VITA site. Wandering into an issue like business losses or depreciation isn’t helping anyone and may, in fact, ultimately harm the client. Please stay away.

Always prepare tax returns based on the facts presented and by correctly applying tax law using appropriate reference materials.

Let’s acknowledge the truth: there are temptations to “help” taxpayers by entering something that isn’t accurate. For example, changing months lived in home from 3 to 7 to get EITC and increase someone’s refund and might seem like a nice idea. Don’t do it! That kind of thing is never the right thing to do and it certainly doesn’t help a taxpayer to file a false return. In addition to trouble with IRS, a tax return reporting something like false income to maximize EITC could have a negative effect on the taxpayer’s public benefits. In cases where critical information is not clear and can’t be clarified or trusted to the site’s satisfaction, that site should refuse preparation of that return.

Educate taxpayers on their tax responsibilities and recordkeeping requirements.

It’s tempting to just hand over the completed tax return and mumble something like, “Any questions?” and be done with it. The client is in a hurry to get out of there and you’ve got a roomful of taxpayers waiting. But in order to finish things out properly, you should at least walk through the 1040, line by line. Point out relevant items, such as too little (or excessive) income tax withholding, failure to make estimated tax payments, a qualifying child that will turn 17 during the current year, and—the big one—the importance of recordkeeping for someone who is self-employed.

Ensure a thorough review of all returns and that the taxpayer is involved in the review process.

Yes, every return needs to be reviewed by a knowledgeable third party. The reviewer needs access to all of the taxpayer’s information, including the taxpayer. Because it seems there are always a few questions to ask during quality review.

Protect taxpayer information and maintain confidentiality.

Taxpayers turn over a wealth of personal and financial information to VITA staff. For an identity thief, it’s a dream come true. Don’t let them get an opportunity at it! Taxpayers trust us to keep their information safe and secure. Be careful not to abuse that trust! 

Using the Pledge

OK, now that you’re all pumped up about the pledge, what can you do with it? Here’s some ideas:

  • Take a picture of the big boss at your organization grinning and signing the pledge and put it in a volunteer newsletter.
  • Have each site coordinator sign the pledge and post it at the tax site.
  • Discuss the pledge in volunteer training.
  • Hey, you could even print it on t-shirts, coffee cups and tote bags!
  • Distribute pledges to staff and volunteers to sign and keep—or to post in the office or at tax sites.

Aww, c’mon...you can think of all kinds of ways to use the pledge to encourage awareness of quality tax preparation. Good luck!

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