United Way, AARP Offer Free Income Tax Help

For people who need help with personal income tax filing, the annual ritual has been complicated this year, as preparers have to follow COVID-19 guidelines on social distancing. Fortunately for Lakeland residents, free help is available with safety protocols in place for those who, while cautious, prefer human contact.

United Way of Central Florida underwrites a program, Voluntary Income Tax Assistance, with offices in Lakeland, Mulberry, Bartow, and Haines City. Transactions, handled through the Personal Finance Center of Polk County, are open to those earning less than $66,000 a year.

You can expect limited person-to-person communication, said Jennifer Olivas, a financial coach with the finance center in Mulberry. Communication and document handling takes place with an IRS-certified volunteer using a “bubble” system that includes a drop-off and pick-up.

“This year, families and individuals will bring tax paperwork to their preferred location using a drop-off system,” Olivas said. “Your tax information and required documents are accepted at the drop-off and will go to a tax volunteer. The volunteer prepares your tax return and in about seven days calls you to schedule a pick-up appointment.” 

Locations and contact information are:

  • Simpson Park Community Center, 1725 MLK Ave., 863-425-1523. Drop-off: Mondays, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; through April 5.
  • Explorations V Children’s Museum, 109 N. Kentucky Ave., 863-687-3869. Appointments only: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays; through April 9.
  • Mulberry Community Service Center, 211 NW First Ave., Mulberry, 33860; 863-425-1523. Drop-off: Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; through March 31.

A complete list of all Polk County locations is at www.financepolk.com/taxprep.

Both the Simpson Park community center and Mulberry community center volunteers use the drop-off system with a team approach. The centers will accept as many individuals with paperwork as possible up to the closing time. The Explorations V Children’s Museum site in downtown Lakeland requires appointments for filers.

In addition to protection against infection, the system also provides a secure information-gathering process, Olivas said.

“When you bring your paperwork in, we scan it to a secure website approved by the IRS and give it back,” she said.  “Personal ID and social information are viewed but not uploaded into the database. Preparers complete the paperwork, set up the appointment to hand over the tax return and get your signature for e-file.”

To avoid a delay in getting your final tax paperwork, Olivas advises checking the complete list of what to bring to the appointment on the county’s Personal Finance Center web page, including your ID (driver license, passport); Social Security number or individual taxpayer ID; W-2s, 1099s, and other forms; and bank account numbers.

As it does each year, AARP is another agency offering free tax help at two Lakeland locations, but this year help is by appointment only. An AARP employee says 40 people were able to file last week, and 100 tax filers are scheduled for appointments.

AARP locations and contact information are:

  • South Lakeland: Legacy Christian Church, 901 W. Beacon Road. 863-425-2319.
  • North Lakeland: Reformation Lutheran Church, 460 Old Polk City Road. Currently at capacity due to COVID restrictions and not scheduling new appointments. 863-858-4861.

The Internal Revenue Service began accepting tax returns via e-file Feb. 12. The deadline to file 2020 income taxes is April 15.

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