Income tax preparation is best learned through application. Reading the tax law and codification is important, however it is crucial to apply this information to real world situations. By volunteering at the South County Rhode Island Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, I had the opportunity to take my knowledge of income tax law and apply it to income tax returns for people in the local community. While an understanding of income tax laws was important, since I was providing a service to clients, communication skills were also crucial to the entire process.
Interestingly, I was surprised to discover that effective communication with the tax clients was actually more difficult than the rigor of completing most of the income tax returns. The various demographics of clients required different approaches, in terms of communication, to gather information that was required to complete an accurate income tax return. Due to the complex nature of income tax, or perhaps the simple anxiety about income tax, most people do not understand many simple tax compliance decisions. For instance, taxpayers can elect to take a standard deduction (which is a set amount based on the taxpayer’s filing status) or to itemize individual allowed expenses (like medical, and charitable contributions). Finally, in terms of communication, it was particularly difficult to inform a client that they owed additional taxes to the IRS.
In addition to applying my tax knowledge, I also had to develop research skills to be able to handle aspects of the tax code that I did not understand. In many cases, I also learned that the manner in which I expressed information determined how well the client understood their tax return. This required that I be well informed about how to assist each individual client. Income taxes often dehumanize a person by making them feel uninformed and unimportant to the government. This service learning opportunity taught me many things, but probably the most fulfilling aspect of this experience was the ability to perform this essential service while at the same time educating people about their own income tax return.