Canada | Tax

Future CPAs participate in annual free tax clinics

Young volunteers assist others in preparing their tax returns through CRA’s Community Volunteer Income Tax Program

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couple with tax preparerDuring the 2017 tax year, 17,500 volunteers, many of who are CPAs or CPA students, assisted more than 700,000 people in filing their income taxes (Shutterstock/tsyhun)

With tax season in full swing, the annual free tax clinics for Canadians with modest incomes are busy once again. 

Each year, 3,000 community organizations across Canada help prepare more than 785,000 tax returns through the CRA’s Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP). During the 2017 tax year, 17,500 volunteers, many of who are CPAs or CPA students, assisted more than 700,000 people in filing their income taxes. Provincial accounting bodies work closely with the CVITP organizers, providing volunteers and setting up their own tax preparation sessions staffed by members and firms.

The free tax preparation service is available at thousands of locations—from libraries and community centres to YMCAs and schools—and are offered in dozens of languages. But some conditions apply: only modest income earners with simple tax situations are eligible. Volunteers do not complete tax returns for individuals with complex tax situations, such as self-employed individuals, returns for deceased persons and rental-income earners.

A HELPING HAND

After being a volunteer tax preparer last year, Jathursan Ponniah returned as a “super volunteer” to the Société des relations d’affaires (SRA), a non-profit run by students at the HEC Montréal business school. The third-year business administration student hopes to one day become a CPA. Ponniah lives in Côte-des-Neiges—a working-class, multicultural neighbourhood close to HEC. 

“I want to help the community where I live,” he says. “And I really loved the experience. Because each tax return is different, we take the time needed to do the right job. It has nothing to do with income, but with the service we want to provide. We can spend anywhere from 30 minutes to two and a half hours on a single return.”

The first tax clinics for people with modest incomes were pioneered by the Canada’s accounting profession in the 1960s. The need for expanded access led to the launch of the CVITP program, which has existed for the past 40 years, providing the flexibility to allow each participating organization to adapt the program to suit its needs. The SRA added several new features this year for its 33rd income tax clinic, including taking appointments and filing returns directly online using UFile app.

“The Canada Revenue Agency suggests a $35,000 income limit per person, but each organization can adjust to meet the needs of their communities,” explains Mathieu Bourcier, a finance student and SRA volunteer organizer. “Although the limit in Quebec is $25,000, we decided to go as high as $35,000. This way we could offer the service to more people and expand our clinic.” 

SRA’s clinic is primarily intended for students—including international students—who are filling out their first tax return, but also newcomers, small families and retirees. 

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Sarah Lemay, director of logistics and a second-year accounting student, admits managing appointments (680 scheduled in four days) and walk-ins (almost as many) was not always easy. Still, the 20-year-old future CPA says it was all worth it. The 350 student volunteers who took part in the four-day clinic prepared close to 1,300 tax returns.

“While completing a tax return can be straightforward for some, that isn’t the case for everyone,” notes Lamay, who helped prepare a fair share of returns last year. “It’s something you have to learn.” 

Bourcier concurs: “While a student can have just one T4 (or T2202A form), others might have several slips because they study, work and receive a scholarship at the same time. Some even receive foreign income.”

The ultimate goal? Make tax forms easy to understand. Volunteers are driven by a desire to help others, yet another reason is oft repeated: it’s one more highlight on their resume.

“Our volunteers have diverse profiles,” says Lemay. “Many are studying accounting, but a lot are in finance, IT or human resources. Regardless, it’s a great opportunity for them to volunteer during their studies and, for some, in their field, which is a plus for landing a future job.”