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    Posted December 16, 2010

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VITA: 35 Years of Tax Assistance

While April 15th is a few months away, the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) office in New York is gearing up for its 35th year of assisting Members through the often confusing and complicated world of tax preparation.

Each year, nearly 2,200 members of Equity, SAG and AFTRA are served by a staff of dedicated unpaid volunteers, who prepare approximately 5,000 federal, state and local tax returns. Members who visit VITA, an outreach assistance arm of the Internal Revenue Service, find a program that provides the empathy that most accounting firms can not. The volunteers at VITA, all of whom must meet rigorous standards for certification by the IRS and are tested annually, have a unique understanding of our business, and the challenges that go hand in hand with preparing returns for individuals in the performing arts. While tax preparation is done only for those who can visit the VITA office in person, the volunteers answer questions from members nationwide. This valuable resource means members can seek advice on such issues as per diem and out-of-town taxation matters, audits, estimated taxes, amended returns and other ongoing tax matters. In addition, staff from all three unions contact the VITA office for information that will help a member plan for a tour, file correct withholding and many other tax matters that cross their desks.

Because tax returns for the performing arts don't fit the typical model, Site Coordinator Sandra Karas has established a good relationship with the Washington, DC Taxpayer Advocate's office and has set up a system of review of a number of cases. To date, these efforts have yielded favorable results for our members who have been or are being audited. Members have been assisted in Georgia, Illinois, Washington, New York, and California, among other regions. In addition, Ms. Karas drafted a letter outlining our members' ordinary and necessary business expenses, reimbursement policies and other information for use by members in IRS examinations. This has assisted IRS examiners to better understand the unique circumstances in which our members work and maintain their myriad artistic skills. Last season, the New York Equity VITA office received glowing marks in its on-site audit by IRS agents in the preparation of returns and in its administrative operations.

This season, VITA plans to file all returns electronically filing to meet not only the requests of the IRS and state agencies, but to offer members the advantages of e-filing which include refunds within 14 days, greater accuracy, faster processing, and no further need to photocopy and mail several returns. And VITA will be eligible to apply for IRS grants in future when it is on board with electronic filing. So, it'll be a greener, more efficient office and will streamline the refund process for members.

The office is supported by modest annual donations from all three performing arts unions, with Equity also providing the space, technical support and other services. These donations offset the costs of office supplies, software and other operating expenses. In recent months, the VITA office has gotten a much-needed facelift. The Foundations of AEA, AFTRA and SAG made generous contributions toward renovating the space on the 14th Floor of the New York Equity building. Improved lighting, fresh paint, new carpeting, electrical upgrades and new furniture/workstations with seating for both preparers and taxpayers has given the space a new look, greater comfort and privacy for the hundreds of members who stream through all year. Through regular donations and that of a generous benefactor, new computers were purchased and installed last year.

The VITA program of AEA, AFTRA and SAG is also unique in that it offers free service year-round. Unlike other volunteer offices, ours serves members after the filing season has ended. Beginning in February, and through April, the office will be open four days a week. It is closed on Tuesdays. From May through January, the office is open on Thursdays. Whether it's the height of tax season, or the rest of the year, VITA is always a hub of activity, and a welcoming oasis to sort out those pesky tax questions.

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