SJ-R Column – Tax preparation help is available

As originally published in the Our Towns section of The State Journal Register.

Today marks the start of a New Year which means that tax season is right around the corner. For many, there is nothing less exciting than filing income taxes. However, income tax season presents a great opportunity for people to review their finances and take action to become more financially stable.
At United Way, we fight for the financial stability of every person in our community. As one of our four issue areas, we are committed to providing individuals and families the education, skills and supports needed to live financially stable lives.

During the tax season, there are several programs which provide free tax preparation and assistance to local individuals and families. In fact, more than 18,000 households living in our community qualify for free tax preparation through the website, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, or Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program.

The first of these programs,, provides free, safe federal and state tax preparation and filing assistance – both online and in-person – in all 50 states to individuals and families with a 2016 household income of $64,000 or less for online filing. Unlike other free tax filing services, goes beyond a simple tax return and provides a helpline (1-855-MY-TX-HELP) and online chat support (free of charge) with services available in English and Spanish by IRS-certified specialists.

Not only is this service free, it is operated by H&R Block- an industry-leader in tax preparation who works in partnership with United Ways around the country to make this service available. provides handy checklists, frequently asked questions and step-by-step instructions to walk you through the tax preparation process. In addition, provides great tax savings tips on how you can make the most of your refund while saving the costs associated with tax preparation and refund advances. If you or your family has a household income of less than $64,000, we encourage you to use

In addition to online assistance, the Center for Economic Progress will open its Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program on January 21. This program provides free, in-person tax assistance to families with incomes less than $55,000 (more than one person in home) or individuals with incomes less than $30,000. The VITA program will be housed in Family Service Center’s building at 730 E. Vine St. More information can be found at or by calling (312) 252-0280.

Finally, The AARP Tax-aide program for senior citizens and low-income residents will begin accepting appointments for tax-preparation assistance at the end of the month. Similar to the VITA program, AARP Tax-aide provides free, in-person tax assistance to families (more than one person in home) with incomes less than $55,000 or Individuals with incomes less than $30,000. Although open to individuals of all ages, the program has a particular focus on preparing taxes and addressing issues affecting those age 60 and older. Information on locations and services will be available in the coming days on AARP’s website at

Tax preparation assistance programs such as these are designed to help working families save on the cost of these services and address specific tax issues affecting these families. This includes the Earned Income Tax Credit which is only claimed by 80% of those families who qualify.

If you or a family you know fall within the income limits mentioned above, please take advantage of these services. Not only are they designed to address the tax issues facing your family, they help families avoid predatory tax preparers who often target low income families with costly services and products such as high interest rate refund anticipation loans.

John Kelker is the president at United Way of Central Illinois. Look for United Way columns weekly in Our Towns.