Tax professionals offer solace for students surprised by their taxes this year

Changing tax laws and pandemic assistance may greatly affect students’ tax returns.

By Jack Kelly, Staff Writer

Tax season is underway with a deadline of April 15. Students in need of assistance in filing their taxes can utilize a number of helpful resources. (Photo by Arevik Saroyan/The Valley Star)

Students at Valley College may see shocking numbers when they file their taxes this year, but there are resources available to potentially ease the pain.

One resource is H. Steven Gordon’s Income Tax Preparation class, which covers Federal and California Income Tax laws for individuals and sole proprietorships. The course was designed for students with little to no experience in taxes, and it focuses on the form most will fill out.

“It is my goal that when the course is completed,” Gordon said, “the students will be able to prepare a simple Form 1040 along with the related Forms and Schedules.”

As the Apr. 15 deadline approaches, most Valley students will need to utilize other ways of filing their taxes. The IRS offers user-friendly websites where U.S. citizens can file for free like TaxSlayer, TaxAct and OLT, yet many taxpayers still find themselves overwhelmed, confused or downright frustrated by the process.

Jeffrey Thompson, an IRS-enrolled tax preparer, assures those feelings are common, and he understands. Though he has prepared taxes for six years, he takes 24 hours of required continuing education every year to learn about new tax changes. Sometimes he opts to take up to 30 hours to keep his skills “sharp.”

“If that’s what I need to do,” said Thompson, “then how are normal people expected to know everything about taxes?”

According to Thompson, one area this year “normal people” should understand revolves around unemployment. California is one of 15 states that does not tax unemployment insurance but offers residents the option of withholding federal taxes, allowing those receiving benefits to pay throughout the year. In 2020, however, the state only took taxes from the base unemployment amount and not the $300 or $600 weekly pandemic assistance, which was also taxable.

“Imagine you had $18,000 in unemployment that wasn’t taxed. If you’re in the lowest tax bracket, you will owe $1,800 on that income,” explained Thompson. “A lot of people might have heart attacks when they see that.”

Unemployed Californians receiving supplemental benefits in 2021 can file a voluntary withholding request with the Employment Development Department to avoid similar surprises next tax season.

Those who were employed in 2020 could also see changes in their taxes due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) signed into law by former President Donald J. Trump in 2017. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, said in a New York Times opinion piece “[the TCJA] is a delayed tax increase dressed up as a tax cut” because, for those earning under $75,000, taxes will gradually rise from 2021 until 2027.

This year alone, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that individuals who earn between $20,000 and $30,000 will owe on average an additional $365. One major reason cited by the independent tax policy nonprofit Tax Foundation is that the TCJA reduced the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate to $0, effectively removing a tax credit that predominantly benefitted low-income individuals.

Valley students have a few options in alleviating a potentially high tax payment. Students who paid tuition last year should receive Form 1098-T, which can make them, or their parents, eligible for an education deduction. Those who paid student loan interest may be eligible for an additional deduction, though that amount may be lower than in previous years according to Consumer Affairs.

Some colleges offer help to their students through IRS programs like Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA). Valley does not have such a program, so Gordon recommends that students with additional questions consult a professional tax advisor.

Students may feel stressed as the filing deadline draws nearer, but Thompson reminds them to go easy on themselves for not knowing everything about taxes.

“Taxes aren’t a thing we talk about a lot, and to many people, what I do seems like magic,” Thompson said. “Which is frustrating because I actually do magic, and they are less impressed by that.”

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