Tampa Bay area residents can file taxes for free this season through the United Way

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — No one likes filing taxes, but 8 On Your Side is here to link you with people who can help.

United Way Suncoast’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program staffed more than 400 volunteers to help about 20,000 people file their taxes. In all, the program returned nearly $25 million in refunds to members of the Tampa Bay area community. 

Anyone who has low to moderate income can qualify as long as their household income is less than $66,000.

Many of those filers don’t get back the money they’re due.

“There’s over a billion dollars left on the table that people are not claiming through the Earned Income Tax Credit,” said Margarita Perez, Senior Manager of Financial Stability at United Way Southeast.

This year, it’s particularly important to get help filing your taxes if you suffered losses due to Hurricane Irma and got money from the federal government.

“Basically, because of Hurricane Irma, we do have a casualty loss,” said Perez. “And all the people who live here are affected one way or the other. The question is if you received any monies from FEMA. That’s gonna be a big issue this year – how we can help them, if we can help them.”

Tax professionals say don’t wait – do your taxes now. If you owe money, you’ll pay more interest and penalties the longer you wait. Even if you’re due a refund, it’s still a good idea to file now.

“One, you’re going to beat the rush at the very end with all the procrastinators,” said Perez. “Two, if there’s any issues, you’ll have plenty of time to get it resolved. Because after April 17, which is Tax Day this year, if there’s any issues, they’re gonna wait quite a while because that’s when everybody’s getting their taxes done.”

That typically means you’ll wait longer to get a refund check as the IRS gets busier.

Click here to find VITA program locations in Hillsborough, Pinellas, DeSoto, Hernando and Manatee counties.

8 TIPS TO GET THE MOST MONEY BACK

1)     Take advantage of free tax preparation services.
Taxpayers often overpay for tax preparation services based on the promise of receiving the most money from their tax return. But last year, Suncoast-area taxpayers saved roughly $3.8 million by taking advantage of United Way Suncoast’s VITA program, in which people making less than $66,000 are eligible to have their taxes prepared for FREE by IRS-certified volunteers at more than 42 locations in DeSoto, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties. They can also file for free online at MyFreeTaxes.com.

2)     Maximize qualifying tax credits.
Each year, nearly 20% of people who qualify for the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) do not claim it on their tax returns! Taxpayers should be sure the tax preparation professionals they choose are fully versed in identifying who qualifies for certain tax credits – and in helping them to claim those credits.

3)     Don’t pay for advancesand the fees that come with them.
When budgets are tight, often following the holiday shopping season, many taxpayers rely on getting their refund cash quicker. The catch? Most advances come with steep fees and end up costing more. Don’t be swayed by the promise of fast cash.
Taxpayers should note that by law, the IRS cannot issue refunds for people claiming the EITC or ACTC (Additional Child Tax Credit) before mid-February. This law helps to ensure that taxpayers receive the refund they’re due by giving the IRS more time to detect and prevent fraud. The IRS expects the earliest refunds related to EITC and ACTC to be available in taxpayer bank accounts or on debit cards on February 27, 2018, if the taxpayer uses direct deposit and there are no issues with the tax return.  This additional waiting period is due to several factors, including the Presidents’ Day holiday and allowing banking and financial systems time to process deposits.

4)     Select the fastest methods to receiving a refund.
Combining direct deposit with electronic filing is the fastest way for a taxpayer to get their refund. Filing a tax return electronically is the most accurate way to prepare and file taxes, reducing the chance for errors and refund delays. With direct deposit, a refund goes directly into a taxpayer’s bank account.

5)     Maximize education credits.
Education tax credits can help offset the costs of education. The American opportunity tax credit and the Lifetime Learning credit are education credits you can subtract in full from the federal income tax in addition to deducting from taxable income.

6)     Understand how the legislation impacts taxes.
The Affordable Care Act is one example of this. Taxpayers should be sure their tax preparation professionals know the ins-and-outs of current legislation, and look for every opportunity to maximize refunds and put more money in taxpayers’ wallets.

7)     Don’t wait too long to file.
For all those in a rush to file their taxes, they are met equally by procrastinators who wait too long to file and risk missing the tax filing deadline. If you can’t make this year’s April 17 deadline, be sure to file a request for an extension.

8)     Participate in United Way Suncoast’s Tax-A-Thon.
On Friday, February 9, and Saturday, February 10, United Way Suncoast will host a Tax-A-Thon event, offering free tax preparation and filing services, as well as financial services such as opening banks accounts, credit counseling, financial stability education and more. Join United Way Suncoast on these days, from 8:00 am – 8:00 pm, at Hillsborough Community College (HCC) Dale Mabry, 4001 W. Tampa Bay Blvd, Social Science Building, 2nd Floor, Tampa, Florida, 33614.

–United Way Southeast

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