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Ohio State students aid in tax preparation, receive practical experience

Two OSU student groups, one from Moritz School of Law and the other from Fisher College of Business, help low-income residents in Columbus complete their taxes. Credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Lewis

Two OSU student groups, one from Moritz School of Law and the other from Fisher College of Business, help low-income residents in Columbus complete their taxes.
Credit: Courtesy of Stephanie Lewis

Two Ohio State groups helped Columbus residents get tax refunds this year.

A group from Moritz College of Law helped about 220 residents get about $400,000 back and a group from Fisher College of Business helped 203 residents get $387,000 back, said Robert Dodson, a third-year law student at Moritz and a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site coordinator, and Stephanie Lewis, a senior lecturer in accounting and management information systems at Fisher and the VITA site coordinator for the Fisher Tax Clinic.

Students from both colleges work through Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, a program through the Internal Revenue Service that helps people who earn less than $52,000 per year complete their taxes and get refunds.

Lewis said the refunds often make a difference in the lives of those helped.

“Refunds are probably how they will fund the cost of keeping up their household for the next few months,” Lewis said.

Dodson said student participation was low this year.

“We struggled a little to get volunteers this year,” Dodson said. “Sometimes we get a lot of business law-focused students who take a particular interest in tax, and other times students’ interests are in other areas of law. It depends on the year.”

Dodson said he got involved during his first year of law school.

“I was interested in business law with an inkling towards tax. It was something to show potential employers I was interested (in),” Dodson said.

The program started in January and ended March 1 for Fisher, while Moritz ended its program March 8.

Sixty-nine Fisher students worked in the program, with 11 of them in managerial roles at the center. Fisher students are mostly from the accounting major in their final year of school, or in the one-year track grad school program Fisher has for its accounting graduate students. Students worked in pairs to prepare and check the tax forms with the clients, said Maria Khrakovsky, a fourth year in accounting and French and a tax preparer at the Fisher Tax Clinic.

In a typical day, students arrived at their respective offices, set up computers with a program called TaxWise — a computerized version of the tax form — and helped their clients run their taxes. The site coordinator checked the taxes to see if they missed any refunds or did the numbers wrong before submitting the taxes for credits.

A credit that students can help their clients get is the earned income tax credit, which requires the taxpayer to have at least one dependent and have low to moderate income, according to the IRS website. The refund can be about $3,000, said Andrew Hartman, a third-year at Moritz and the vice president of VITA for the Tax Clinic at Moritz.

“Most people who come in have a simple tax return,” said Ben Hackett, a graduate student in accounting and one of the site managers at the Fisher Tax Clinic. “It’s a learning experience for tax preparers.”

Moritz volunteers are mostly interested in tax law for big companies, but doing the program can help students gain real world experience, Dodson said. Moritz had fewer volunteers than Fisher — only 15 as compared to Fisher’s 69 — because of a lesser interest in tax law and taxes than there is in accounting schools, Dodson said. Students worked individually when possible, and Fisher sent some of their volunteers to work with the law students.

But it’s helping others that attracts some of the students who are working with VITA.

“It’s a great way to serve people in the community and apply what we’ve learned in business,” said Emily Topp, an accounting graduate student and a site manager at VITA Fisher Tax Clinic. “I’m really impressed that students were willing to give up their hours, both over winter break and during tax season.”

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