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Tax season underway

Don’t look now, but the tax season officially got under way Monday. That’s the day the Internal Revenue Service started accepting and processing 2021 tax returns.

The Jan. 24 start date for individual tax return filers allowed the IRS time to perform programming and testing critical to ensuring IRS systems run smoothly. Updated programming helps ensure that eligible people can claim the proper amount of the Child Tax Credit after comparing their 2021 advance credits and claim any remaining stimulus money as a Recovery Rebate Credit when they file their 2021 tax return.

IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said, “Planning for the nation's filing season process is a massive undertaking, and IRS teams have been working non-stop these past several months to prepare." Rettig urged taxpayers to speed the process by filing electronically and choosing direct deposit for their tax refunds.

Having an accurate tax return can avoid processing delays, refund delays and later IRS notices, according to the IRS. This is especially important for people who received advance Child Tax Credit payments or Economic Impact Payments (American Rescue Plan stimulus payments) in 2021; they will need the amounts of these payments when preparing their tax return. The IRS is mailing special letters to recipients, and they can also check amounts received on IRS.gov.

The filing deadline to submit 2021 tax returns or an extension to file and pay tax owed is April 18 for most taxpayers. By law, Washington, D.C., holidays impact tax deadlines for everyone in the same way federal holidays do. The due date is April 18, instead of April 15, because of the Emancipation Day holiday in the District of Columbia. Taxpayers requesting an extension will have until Monday, October 17, 2022, to file.

Helping Butler County residents make the April 18 filing deadline are two no-cost tax preparation programs, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide.

The VITA program provides free income tax preparation services to any individual or family with an income under $50,000, according to Jean Bowen, the coordinator of the program for the last 12 years.

IRS-certified volunteers prepare tax returns for free, and filers can get a refund in as little as nine days.

Bowen said, “Last year, we helped 1,986 people. They make an appointment and drop off their tax information. They get it back usually within a day.”

Interested people can call the VITA appointment line at 724-431-3767 during business hours for eligibility screening and appointment scheduling. The VITA tax season began on Jan. 18, according to Bowen.

Those who qualify can drop their tax information off at six locations:

Center for Community Resources, Inc. 212-214 S. Main St. Butler;

Slippery Rock University’s Sustainable Enterprise Accelerator, 165 Elm Street, Slippery Rock;

Cranberry Township Municipal Center, 2525 Rochester Road;

Harvest Community Church, 143 Reed Road, Kittanning;

St. Luke’s Lutheran School, 330 Hannahstown Road, Jefferson Township;

Trinity Lutheran Church, 120 Sunset Drive

Trinity Lutheran Church is also a location for the county’s second free income tax preparation service, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, said Gary Rauschenberger, district coordinator for the AARP program for the past 12 years.

Other sites include the Cranberry and Mars public libraries and the Tanglewood Center in Lyndora.

“We’ll have IRS-certified counselors,” said Rauschenberger. “They’ll come in, drop their stuff off, go away for an hour or so, come back, go over the return and we will file electronically.”

Rauschenberger said the AARP service is intended for low-to-moderate income taxpayers (under around $73,000) with special attention given to those age 50 and older. Membership in AARP is not a requirement.

Certain factors, such as holding cryptocurrency, owning a rental property or being self-employed, make some taxpayers ineligible to receive AARP Foundation Tax-Aide services.

The most important points again this year, according to Rauschenberger, are that all sites require an appointment in advance only by calling 211 and taxpayers should bring a photo ID along with their prior year (2020) tax return. Tax-Aide will begin scheduling appointments beginning Tuesday.

Rauschenberger said this year, because the program had to cancel its services last year because of the COVID pandemic, it would help if people brought both their 2020 and 2019 tax returns.

“Last year, our clients may have gotten a friend or a relative to do their tax returns. We don’t know what they did last year. We really don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

But he feels confident his 24 IRS-certified counselors should be able to get a client’s return completed in an hour or so.

People with questions about their taxes should use online services before calling the IRS, said Rettig.

Last filing season, as a result of COVID-era tax changes and broader pandemic challenges, the IRS phone systems received more than 145 million calls from Jan. 1 – May 17, more than four times more calls than in an average year. In addition to IRS.gov, the IRS has a variety of other free options available to help taxpayers, ranging from the VITA program to the availability of the IRS Free File program.

Last year's average tax refund was more than $2,800. More than 160 million individual tax returns for the 2021 tax year are expected to be filed, with the vast majority of those coming before the traditional April tax deadline.

Overall, the IRS anticipates most taxpayers will receive their refund within 21 days of when they file electronically if they choose direct deposit and there are no issues with their tax return.

However, by law, the IRS cannot issue a refund involving the Earned Income Tax Credit or Additional Child Tax Credit before mid-February, though eligible people could have filed their returns beginning Monday. The law provides this additional time to help the IRS stop fraudulent refunds from being issued.

It's never too early to get ready for the tax-filing season ahead. For more tips and resources, check out the Get Ready page on IRS.gov.