Free tax prep

For information online about all the locations below, go to tuw.org (Trident United Way). In most cases days and hours are limited and appointments are needed.

The Prosperity Center - in Summerville (282-6294) and Moncks Corner (761-6033). For individuals with income of $65,000 or less, households with income of $95,000 or less.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) - locations throughout the region. For households with income of $52,000 or less. For details call the Trident Urban League at 965-4037.

AARP Tax Aide - locations throughout the region. For those age 60 and older. For details visit aarp.org or call 888-227-7669.

Free File - do-it-yourself online state and federal tax filing. Income limits apply. Visit sctax.org for details and options.

At more than two dozen locations across the tri-county area, people are getting their tax returns prepared for free, and they are often getting something extra.

$760 million in federal refunds about to expire

If you didn't file a tax return for 2010, the Internal Revenue Service says it might have a refund waiting for you.

The deadline to claim it is April 15, and you have to file a 2010 return to get the money.

The IRS said Wednesday it has $760 million in refunds owed to people who did not file returns for 2010. Some people weren't required to file returns because they made too little money, but they had income taxes withheld from their pay by employers.

Taxpayers have three years to claim refunds. Since 2010 returns were due in April 2011, the deadline to claim a refund is next month. There's no penalty for filing a late return that qualifies for a refund.

Unclaimed refunds become property of the Treasury.

Associated Press

At the Prosperity Center in Summerville, the staff also will help people fill out the federal forms used to determine student aid and college loans, or sign visitors up for free classes on financial management, or buying a home.

The free tax preparation at the Prosperity Center is not restricted to those with low incomes; it's available to families with incomes up to $95,000, and individuals earning up to $65,000. Most people earn less than that.

Joshua Hall, 22, was used to having his parents do his income taxes, as he was still a dependent, but this week he had his return done at the Prosperity Center.

"This was my first time doing it," said Hall, who went to Georgia Military College and drives a truck for an electrical supply company. "I walked in, all the people were really nice, and I was out of there in about 10 minutes."

Hall, who lives with his parents, said he'll be getting a refund and may use the money to get a place of his own. He was asked if he would like personal finance advice but declined because he relies on a relative who is a bank manager.

The Prosperity Center is at the rear of a Goodwill store on Trolley Road, and it's a collaboration between nonprofit groups Palmetto Goodwill, Trident United Way and Family Services. There's a second location in Moncks Corner.

"Offering the free tax service is part of our goal of increasing (local residents') incomes," said Summerville Prosperity Center Manager Walter Simmons. "We're saving the community thousands of dollars."

In North Charleston, the Increasing Hope Financial Training Center also does free tax preparation, as one of the area's 15 Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites. Center Director Dorothea Bernique said clients often get large refunds because of federal tax credits for working parents with low incomes.

Unlike Hall, some are in need of financial advice, Bernique said.

"The thing is, they normally don't have a plan for it, and we urge them to have to a plan," she said. "We suggest they create an emergency fund, and pay off debts."

Bernique has seen clients make good decisions and bad ones with tax refunds.

"What we see a lot is individuals talking about making large purchases they have been putting off, like buying a car or putting a down-payment on a house," she said. "The other things we see are people buying large-screen TVs, and particularly fancy cellphones - and I'm talking about the kind that cost up to $1,000."

Bernique said the appointment-only free tax preparation is booked into April at her location, and she expects a late rush as the April 15 deadline for federal tax filing approaches.

In Charleston at the Upper King Street office of the Charleston County Human Services Commission, staff members in a shabby building with burglar bars on the front windows and door prepare tax returns for people with lower incomes.

The income limits are stricter than at the Prosperity Center, and even lower than the $52,000 household income threshold for VITA sites.

The commission staff tries to do some financial literacy counseling while they do people's taxes.

"We try to impress upon them to have a bank account, so that they don't have to use check-cashing places, and to spread that (refund) money out through the year," said administrator Sheila West. "I've seen families that use the money for child care expenses, or make a large purchase they have been planning for."

She said it seems that more clients these days do have bank accounts, or as an alternative, use debit cards that can accept direct deposits in order to deposit and withdraw money.

The federal Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are "refundable" tax credits, which means a qualifying person can see their tax liability reduced to zero by the tax credits, and then get a check for the balance of the credits. Often, the resulting once-a-year checks can be a significant part of the annual income for the working poor, and for single mothers in particular.

West said clients are often advised about how to change their tax withholding rate, so that they will have more income from work throughout the year, rather than having money withheld for federal taxes and then getting it back all at once.

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.