Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What is reasonable for coordinators to expect from new volunteers?

The VITA program requires volunteers preparing taxes to obtain annual certification through an open book test administered by the IRS. Given the expectation of the limited range of returns that VITA volunteers prepare, it does seem too much to ask those who are already qualified to prepare returns professionally to have to go through the whole training process.

What is a reasonable performance to expect, why, and are we seeing that?

Since volunteers are trained in Tax Law, TaxWise software, interviewing taxpayers and completing tax returns, what are reasonable expectations for a new volunteer with Basic Certification?

I consider the following to be reasonable:
1) The ability to fill in a W-2 form without errors, especially W-2s with special requirements for individual States (in my case, California)
2) The ability to recognize that 1099-Misc income generally goes neither on line 7 nor line 21
3) The ability to recognize that returns with pre-tax retirement contributions on W-2s is beyond the scope of their training unless they understand the Retirement Savers’ Credit
4) The ability to recognize why we enter bank account information twice rather than cutting and pasting the numbers thereby guaranteeing they are the same
5) The ability to independently and correctly complete a 1040 with filing status single with only W-2s and interest or 1040-EZ equivalent.
6) The ability to recognize that creating an e-file successfully means that a certain level of correctness and completeness of the return has been achieved but that the return may not be perfect and that it assigns a DCN to the return in preparation for transmission, but does not transmit the return
7) The wisdom to not ask questions or request information when the answer will not make a difference to the tax return. (A prime example for California State returns is to spend time trying to draw out landlord information when the tax obligation is 0, and taxpayer does not qualify for renter credit)
8) The ability to explain why it is necessary to identify and associate a taxpayer with picture and tax IDs presented by the taxpayer rather than on handwritten lists of numbers, or paper copies of prior returns

What do others think? Any additional basic abilities you think are necessary and reasonable to expect? Please add your comments to this posting.

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  1. The recognition that the support test for a dependent is very different depending on whether the dependent is a "qualifying child" vs. a "qualifying relative."

    The recognition that the IRS does not use common English words in quite the same way as the rest of the world. Your child may sometimes be your "qualifying relative" but not your "qualifying child." Your relative may sometimes be your "qualifying child" but not your "qualifying relative." Your child may not have actually lived with you for most of the year, but may still have met the IRS definition of "living with you." You may have been legally married but the IRS may still consider you to be unmarried under certain circumstances.

  2. It is an honor to have a comment from Mary O'Keeffe, and academician who teaches about the role of Income Tax in the Economy. Thank you!

    May I add as a side note my own thoughts on TaxSpeak and PeopleSpeak that I penned one sleepless night when the muse struck me. IRS people speak TaxSpeak and expect the PeopleSpeaking TaxPaying public to understand it.

    With your contribution of ideas, we are well on the way for coming up with competency requirements for training volunteers to be ready to do taxes independently and correctly on the first day they face the public.

  3. John Lee - VITA San Pablo
    I instructed the Basic training this year for Contra Costa. 3 Days in Dec/Jan.

    I have learned as a first year coordinator that I should have spent more time handling last name inputs. We have a very high percentage of Hispanic and the last name confuse most. 4012 has a good write up on that. Also doing over-rides for W2 for ITIN electronic filing.

    The new, improved 4491 and the Practice Lab really improved the quality of training for volunteers. I think all those I trained would meet the comments above except the 1099MISC location - an Intermediate topic. I instructed my new students on the IRA contribution as a part of a W2 Line 12 contribution. That happens enough that all should know how to handle that. And also a straight SSA1099.

    I also had an 'orientation day' on 1/31 with some training for all on California. I has helpful hints like looking to see if CA tax is there before doing the renter credit.

    Then we had 3 volunters on 1 client as wrap up in the PM. The clients were happy to have the early return and the new volunteers less intimidated doing it for the 'first time'.

    So some ramblings to get the blog going.
    John Lee

  4. Glad to hear about your experiences, and it appears you added your own modifications to the general training that most volunteers seem to get. More power to you! In Santa Clara County, classroom training is held 4 Saturdays in January at the IRS Building in San Jose on (Some years, there are 5 Saturdays!) on the prescribed training material, and anything else that site coordinators want to address is done outside those Saturdays if we want new volunteers to take full advantage of the training. Unfortunately, that is difficult to schedule given the busy schedules of everybody. I can see from your experience that a day or half a day needs to be set aside in the official schedule for Site Orientation for the optional use of the Site Coordinator.

    As far as the 1099-MISC goes, many new volunteers trying to be helpful try to fit it on line 7 or 21 when it should go on the C-EZ. There are also those that argue that putting it on C-EZ is a bad idea because the tax obligation increases.

    While this can be corrected before filing, it is an necessary unpleasant job of dashing expectations when explaining to the volunteer or the taxpayer why there is suddeanly a decrease of their refund or an increase in tax due.

    So, the recommendation is not that Basic training covers it, but that awareness be given that it is out of scope. On the other hand, many returning and advanced volunteers are not aware of how to handle this properly. The general point is that volunteers should be aware coming out of training what they should not do, rather than try to be overly helpful.

    I like your idea of 3 volunteers on 1 return in the afternoon. Sounds like a live lab day for taxpayers willing to have their lab rats, :-), er tax returns examined, discussed, dissected, probed and poked at for practice by the volunteers. Properly organized and arranged ahead of time with a select few new or returning taxpayers willing to take that role for early filing, this could be very good training session for all concerned, and certainly something to consider as part of the training for next year.