April 16, 2014
Law Students Offer Tax Return Help
|Law student Tom O'Leary helps a taxpayer with his return on April 15 at the Columbus School of Law.
On April 15, tax-preparation volunteers at the Columbus School of Law were on hand for the inevitable procrastinators. Participating in the IRS-sponsored Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, the law students had 22 scheduled appointments and were also accepting walk-ins.
“Our goal is to maximize a person’s return. We want to put cash back into the pockets of low-income residents,” said Paul Kurth, director of the Consumer Protection Project of Columbus Community Legal Services (CCLS).
Through Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, CCLS provides free legal services to needy individuals and families who live in the District of Columbia. In addition to the Consumer Protection Project, three other free clinics operate through CCLS: the General Practice Clinic, the Families and the Law Clinic, and the Advocacy for the Elderly Clinic.
Kurth supervised the law school’s VITA volunteers through the Consumer Protection Project, and reviewed every return before it was filed. To participate, each law student completed 17 hours of training conducted by Kurth, and then had to pass an IRS-administered exam in order to be certified by the IRS as a volunteer. Then starting on Feb. 3, the clinic was open to the public — those with annual incomes of $52,000 or less are eligible for free VITA services — every Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday in four-hour shifts.
Tom O’Leary, a first-year law student, has prepared tax returns at the clinic every Tuesday since Feb. 4. He says it was fitting that his last shift fell on Tuesday, April 15. “As a first year student, you hear a lot about pro bono opportunities, but it’s only when you actually start to use your skills to help others that you realize what a difference you can make,” he says.
“I’m giving five hours a week. That’s pretty small in the grand scheme of things. But the impact it has on someone, it makes their life easier. It’s worth it,” says O’Leary, who received his B.A. in politics at CUA in 2011.
The student volunteers have been particularly successful helping taxpayers take advantage of various credits, in particular, the earned income tax credit, which allows low-income individuals to get a credit of up $6,143 depending on how many children they have.
Twenty-five law school students have served as VITA volunteers this semester. Amber Dengler is one of them.
“I wanted to learn more about tax laws. So this has been really educational. And it’s great when we help someone get a much-needed return. But even when we complete a return and someone owes money, there is still that sense of relief for the person that it’s done,” says the first-year law student.
The Tuesday shift was scheduled to end at 7 p.m.. But on April 15, the student volunteers stayed until 9 p.m., until every person who needed help had his or her taxes filed on time. After that last return was filed for the night, the Columbus School of Law’s VITA volunteers had helped a total of 148 local residents file their returns.