Five years ago Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA), a non-profit organization that provides free legal advice and, in some cases, representation for criminal cases for residents in Southwest Texas who cannot afford the fees of private attorneys, launched Texas Taxpayer Assistance Project (T-TAP), a program that gives low-income taxpayers, with no more than $50,000 in dispute per tax year, free legal assistance on federal tax matters.

Funded in part by a grant from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), T-TAP has slowly been building community awareness through workshops being held all across the Valley, in locations like churches, schools, head start programs and housing projects, where tax payers are provided with valuable tax information before the tax issues with the IRS even arise.

“People need to be proactive and address any problem as soon as possible so that it does not spiral out of control,” said Lisa Galvan, T-TAP tax attorney. “We’re a recognized clinic by the United States Tax Court; those who filed a petition with them will be referred to us.”

When they get their first notice issue they should definitely contact us, added Galvan.

Common problems T-TAP handles are collection issues for people who should not be under collection status, low-income individuals who are victims of identity theft and have a difficult time filing, earned income tax credit denials, innocent spouse relief requests, injured spouse claims, deficiency notices, liens and levies, employee/independent contractor disputes and audits and examinations, when the IRS is asking for proof of something.

According to Reveriano Torres, T-TAP outreach coordinator, these issues are usually the result of poor tax preparation. Currently there are no guidelines specifying that a tax preparer must be certified, therefore, anyone can prepare taxes.

Tax laws are constantly changing and many tax preparers do not acknowledge these changes leading many of those who solicit their services to incur issues with the IRS. In some cases notifications of these issues are not sent until months and up to five years after the taxes were filed.

“We make sure people have the most updated and accurate information,” said Torres. “Most of the time they have misconceptions because they have been given the wrong information.”

People often equate claiming dependents with being eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit; T-TAP is working on clarifying this misunderstanding as well as educating those who attend the workshops about who can file, filling status, amounts claimed, requirements to claim dependents, child tax credit, which many people are not aware they qualify for, and where to get taxes prepared for free, like with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, if using a 1040 or 1040EZ form to file and meet their criteria.

“It’s a more proactive, holistic approach; information is power,” said Torres. “We give them the basic information they need to make informed decisions when it comes to preparation.”

The main goals of these workshops are to educate, assist and advocate for those who have issues with the IRS. The length of each workshop typically ranges from an hour and a half to two hours and consists of an interactive approach.

“We want people to ask questions; we want audience participation,” said Torres. “If they don’t feel comfortable asking questions, we stick around afterwards.”

T-TAP disperses books during the workshops about the issues discussed; they also show an educational video that is often televised in south Texas school districts’ channels advising tax payers to seek help from them upon first notice from the IRS, before the issue escalates.

The services are free and Torres encourages individuals needing assistance with a tax issue to contact T-TAP instead of a private tax attorney who will charge fees and provide the same service.

Usually if they do not have a tax issue they have a family member or friend who does and needs help, said Torres, and that’s what we’re here to do.

“A well-informed community is a better community making well-informed decisions to improve their economical situation,” added Torres.

Any community organization interested in putting a workshop together should contact Reveriano Torres at (956) 393-6200. Individuals with a tax issue needing help should contact T-TAP at 1-888-988-9996 or visit a local TRLA office.