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Tax Prep Dispatch: Domestic Violence Organizations and VITA

Editor's Note: This Tax Prep Dispatch was guest authored by Andrea Miller of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

As we move into the coming tax season, and October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, it seems a good time to combine the two issues and begin partnerships between domestic violence (DV) organizations serving survivors and VITA sites preparing taxes in our communities.

Since economic indicators are often the primary reason survivors remain in abusive relationships, tax time can offer an opportunity for a survivor to construct an economic safety net that might allow some financial relief. That relief can translate into obtaining safe housing, setting up transportation or a myriad of other needs that would help establish financial independence.

VITA sites can be valuable resources to help survivors not only understand, but fight to protect themselves and their families during tax season. VITA sites can also help survivors by providing accurate information, free filing services and information on other tax resources for more complicated issues outside the scope of VITA work.

Here are some ways VITA and DV organizations can work together:  

  • Use Form 13614-C to discuss situations in full that impact a survivor’s filing status, access to tax credits, previous experiences and remedies for tax issues. Filing status is critical and VITA sites can explain legal filing options to survivors.
  • Like many other taxpayers, survivors have been given poor information about filing requirements and often don’t understand the system. Survivors may be unaware that they can file to receive tax benefits (refunds due to overpayment or tax credits) even when they have no filing requirement. VITA sites can help survivors file for previous years (up to 3 years) to claim credits. This can add up to significant amounts. In 2017, The Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence (KCADV) helped an unmarried survivor file three previous years of returns along with the current year. She had not filed because her abuser had told her she didn’t earn enough to file each year. He further convinced her that she could not file after the filing season ended each year because she would get into trouble for not filing on time. When she went into shelter, her advocate referred her to us for advice. KCADV staff helped her file and she received almost $20,000 in refunds and credits, which once received, allowed her to establish housing and pay down debt.
  • VITA sites can educate survivors on tax refund offsets and how to appeal. They can also help survivors understand how to address the “race to file”, wherein a partner may claim dependents prior to the survivor being able to file. VITA sites can help advocates and survivors know what documents to chase down in order to satisfy IRS requirements for claiming dependency and credits like the Child Tax Credit, Additional Child Tax Credit, EITC and Child & Dependent Care Tax Credit, and refer survivors to Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITC) to obtain free legal tax representation. 
  • Survivors can avoid costly tax preparation fees by utilizing VITA.
  • Survivors can be assisted with setting up a bank account to encourage direct deposit through asset-building services offered at the VITA site or through economic empowerment programming available at the DV organization.
  • Survivors worried about address confidentiality can be assured that the IRS does NOT release information about an individual’s tax return to another individual. If your state offers address confidentiality programs, this may further alleviate that concern.
  • VITA sites can help the survivor file Injured Spouse if the survivor chooses to file jointly with a partner to protect the survivor’s share of a refund. VITA sites can help the survivor designate a separate account to deposit their share of the refund. VITA sites can also amend previous returns (limitations apply) where Injured Spouse was not filed but the survivor was eligible to file.
  • Survivors may be unaware of remedies for tax debts or tax issues resulting from joint returns filed under coercion or without their knowledge. VITA sites and DV advocates can build bridges with Low Income Taxpayer Clinics in the community to help survivors file for relief under protections offered through Innocent Spouse claims.
  • VITA sites can also connect survivors to the Taxpayer Advocate Service if the survivor is experiencing economic harm, delays, unresolved tax issues or an unfair burden from the tax system.

On the surface, tax preparation and domestic violence services do not exactly mesh. Yet, people at the heart of these programs who seek to better their communities can provide much-needed assistance to survivors of domestic violence. If you are running a VITA program and seeking new partnerships to maximize your impact, you should consider joining forces with your local domestic violence organizations.