Free tax prep for low-to-moderate income Marylanders

The April 18 deadline to file federal tax returns is fast approaching, and this can be a stressful time, especially for inexperienced tax filers. That’s where nonprofit CASH Campaign of Maryland comes in.

CASH (Creating Assets, Savings and Hope) and its partners provide free tax prep to anyone who earned $58,000 or less in 2021. Founder and chief operating officer Sara Johnson estimates 1.3 million Maryland taxpayers — or nearly 42% of all Marylanders — are eligible for free tax preparation, but many of them don’t even file, costing them valuable tax credits.

“We want to make sure that they are taking advantage of our free tax preparation services and filing to get back all of the money they have earned,” Johnson said.

CASH can help families with children receive credits, such as the newly expanded Child Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Credit, and the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

The EITC is a specialized tax refund that encourages employment by putting thousands of dollars back in the pockets of working families. Johnson calls it “the most effective anti-poverty program in the U.S.,” but when people use paid tax preparers, she said, much of their EITC is whittled away by exorbitant fees and interest rates on “rapid refund” tax services.

CASH Campaign of Maryland volunteer and staff tax preparers are all highly trained and certified.

“They go through eight to 40 hours of training a year,” Johnson said, “and they have to pass an IRS certification test every year to make sure that people are getting the most high-quality tax-preparation services.”

Eligible Maryland taxpayers must first make an appointment at a CASH Campaign of Maryland tax-preparation site, located in 19 counties. They’ll learn what documents to bring, including W-2 and 1099 forms, identification and Social Security cards, as well as some new forms this year.

“People really need to keep an eye out for tax forms that are related to the economic stimulus payments and the Advanced Child Tax Credit that people may have received during the pandemic,” Johnson said.

The in-person meeting will take about 20 minutes. From there, Johnson said, the tax preparers get to work, and the rest of the process goes virtual.

“We will do something via Skype or Zoom, or we will do something by phone to make sure that we walk through the tax return with you, and that you sign it electronically from there.”

The return is also filed electronically, and the refunds happen quickly. Maryland state refund checks could be direct-deposited within three days, and if needed, the CASH Campaign of Maryland tax preparation sites can even help eligible taxpayers open a savings account for the fastest return.

“Direct deposit is the fastest way to get your refund. The paper checks take forever to process, so we want to make sure they’re getting it back fast and safe,” she said.

Johnson said taxpayers can actually open a low-fee, low-cost certified bank account online before the first appointment. Bank on Maryland, which is led by CASH Campaign of Maryland, is a collaboration with financial institutions and other agencies to connect people to safe, inexpensive and certified bank accounts. Opening the account ahead of time can help taxpayers get their refund even faster.

“When we know what the refund amount is,” Johnson said, “we can plug in that direct deposit information [at the first appointment] and make sure that it’s getting into people’s bank accounts safely.”

The deadline to file a Maryland tax return has been extended to July 15 to help taxpayers facing financial hardships from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The federal tax deadline is  April 18.

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