Heather Zilles of Phoenix, Arizona, spends countless hours a year helping people prepare their tax returns and catch up on back taxes. Utocqua Grissett of Conway, South Carolina, has been doing the same since 2004. Both are Wells Fargo team members who volunteer with the national Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
Sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service and nonprofits like the United Way, VITA offers free tax help to households with incomes of $54,000 or less, people with disabilities, and taxpayers with limited English-language skills. The program is run entirely by IRS-certified volunteers, like Heather and Utocqua, who provide free, basic income tax return preparation services with electronic filing and information about tax credits.
Heather, a Wells Fargo operational risk manager, says she’s liked numbers for as long as she can remember and recalls watching her mom prepare her family’s tax returns as a young girl — before she started helping at age 12.
Utocqua, a Business Banking credit analyst who oversees tax preparation volunteers at five locations in Horry County, has a similar story. “I learned about taxes in my 10th-grade economics class,” she says. “But it can be intimidating for some people, particularly if they feel they’ve been wronged in the past. And if you don’t know how to file, it’s easy to get taken advantage of.”
According to the IRS, more than 90,000 volunteers around the U.S. prepared more than 3.7 million income tax returns at thousands of tax sites nationwide during the 2015 filing season. Wells Fargo team members participated in 100 VITA programs in 23 states in 2015.
Utocqua says she sees tax preparation businesses — often with high prices and quick refunds — open in her county every year at tax time. She was troubled to see a friend spend nearly $600 on tax help during tough financial times. “A few hundred dollars can go a long way, and I want to help hardworking taxpayers keep money in their pockets.”
Utocqua was a 2014 Volunteer of the Year for her chapter of Wells Fargo Volunteers, and she received a $1,000 grant on behalf of the United Way of Horry County.
Nationally, Wells Fargo provides financial support for VITA’s operating costs in markets across the U.S. The program is available at more than 12,000 locations in the U.S.
After helping people with their taxes over the years, Heather has a few tips she says can help the process go more smoothly:
- Designate a folder or specific place to keep important tax-related forms throughout the year.
- If you donate cash, household items, or clothing to charities, keep track of those items, and look for resources that help you determine a monetary value for those items.
- When preparing to file your latest return, whether you use a paid or unpaid tax service or file on your own, have your prior year’s tax return handy in case you need to refer to it.
- Whichever method you choose to file, it is important to do so on time or file an extension by the tax filing deadline, which in 2016 is on April 18.