BEMIDJI -- During tax season, students in Bemidji State University’s Tax I and Tax II courses are usually gearing up to help fellow community members. For more than 25 years, the school’s accounting department has provided tax preparation assistance through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.

This year, BSU’s campus is closed to the public, and only a handful of those Tax I and II students are actually in Bemidji, so this vital assistance will be provided virtually -- and it is vital -- as 2020 has brought to light some unique tax situations.

Generally, the VITA program is only geared toward individuals making less than $57,000 per year, the elderly, persons with disabilities and those who speak limited English. However, during the pandemic, the Internal Revenue Service has launched a new program -- FSA (facilitated self-assistance) -- of which BSU is a facilitator, and it’s open to anyone, regardless of income status.

This program, BSU adjunct faculty of accountancy Sandra Kranz explained, allows Americans of any level of income to download and use the software ‘Tax Slayer’ to file their taxes for free.

“They are opening it up to anybody, any income level. Essentially what they are doing is offering the ability to use that software for free and e-file for free, both federal and state,” Kranz said. “It’s like other software preparation that you can pay for, that lets you just answer questions and it prepares your return for you. This is the same kind of thing, and it’s free.

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“It is being launched in our tax district -- which is Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin, I believe -- and we’re the only (district) in the United States that’s offering it right now.”

She explained the program is in its first year, and if it works well, the IRS is hoping they can roll it out to the whole country next year.

Providing tax help through the VITA program is beneficial for not only community members, but also the accounting students.

“Every year when (the students) first have to do this VITA and help people, they are always scared to death,” Kranz explained with a laugh. “They’re always like, ‘Oh my word, oh my word, what if I do something wrong?’

Kranz said she loves the program because of how rewarding it is to see the students start to use what they have been learning and be able to apply it to real life situations.

“Usually, within a week or two they are comfortable with it,” she said. “Most of them enjoy it because you really feel like you’re helping people out.”

Due to COVID-19 precautions, students will answer community members’ questions via email as they file their own taxes through the free FSA program. Only four of the Tax II students are even currently in Bemidji, Kranz said, the rest are all in their home communities due to classes being online. Kranz said volunteers will reply with an answer to each question within 24 to 48 hours.

“Our students in Tax I and Tax II have to pass certification exams that the IRS puts out, and they will be available to people to ask questions as they are filing their taxes themselves,” Kranz explained. “Our students will answer those questions that are within the typical scope of VITA. If you are making a million dollars and using that software, we might not be able to answer your questions.”

Students won’t be hung out to dry if they are unsure. Kranz and assistant professor of business administration Jeffrey Everhart will be standing by to help.

“Jeff and I, we’ll be back-up to them if they have questions about the questions,” Kranz said.

COVID-19 specific tax questions

For some, taxes may be a tad more complicated this year. From stimulus checks to student loan forbearance to PPP loans and unemployment, there are a number of things to consider that may come into play when filing tax returns.

Kranz said one of the more important things for people to know is that people will have the opportunity to indicate whether or not they received economic stimulus payments.

“There is a spot to indicate whether or not you got a stimulus payment and how much you got. You don’t have to pay it back, you don’t have to pay tax on it or anything, but if you put it in there, then they will calculate how much you should have gotten, and if you didn’t get that much, they will add it to your refund,” Kranz said. “If for some reason you got overpaid, they will not take it back, so you don’t have to be afraid.”

“The unemployment is taxable, I’m sorry to say,” Kranz added. “If you received unemployment, you will get a statement from the state that tells you how much you got in unemployment, and you do have to include that in your taxable income. It’s sad but it’s true.”

How to access the software and tax help

Those interested in either the FSA “Tax Slayer” software, the VITA tax help, or both, can visit the BSU website for more information. To access the software download link and connect with assistance, send an email to VITAFreeTaxInfo@bemidjistate.edu. The address will send an automated email response with more information.

The email will include what information you will need -- W2s, past tax returns, etc. -- to begin filing your taxes, as well as information regarding the software.

The IRS began accepting and processing tax returns on Feb. 12, and students will be available Monday through Thursday from now until April 15 to offer support via email to anyone with tax questions within the scope of VITA.

If returns are outside of this scope, taxpayers will need to identify other opportunities for support, such as contacting the IRS directly, working with a professional tax preparation service, or using a commercial self-guided tax preparation service such as TurboTax, according to BSU’s website, however, anyone can request to use the free software from BSU, Kranz said.

Student assistants will never require or ask for a social security number, home address, other identification, nor solicit a payment.

To connect with assistance and for hours of service, visit bemidjistate.edu and search for VITA.