Assistance with tax filing

Thursday, April 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:21 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

With every minute bringing taxpayers closer to the dreaded midnight deadline, more and more people scramble to get their taxes done.

One MU student, however, is unperturbed.

Sravanthi Kache, an electrical engineering graduate student, has already received the money from her tax returns. She received the money on April 12, less than two months after filing her tax returns in late February.

Along with about 400 others, Kache filled in her tax returns forms with the assistance of volunteers at the Brady Commons computer lab six weeks ago.

Despite this being her first time, filling in the forms were a breeze for the Indian international student.

"We didn't have to do it all by ourselves, and if we had any doubts, they would help us," said Kache, referring to the on-site volunteers who answered their queries.

The MU Cashier's Office has been providing tax return preparation assistance to non-resident students, staff and faculty members since 2000 and has helped hundreds like Kache complete their tax return forms. The Non-Resident Alien Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site offers their service twice a year; the first session was held in late February and the second one continues through the end of today.

"The university purchases software that they can use on the computers and we're there to guide them and help them with the answers," said Judy Todd, the coordinator of non-U.S. citizen tax and employment at MU.

Todd said last year the volunteers helped an estimated 960 non-residents complete their tax returns forms.

The number of students they helped was probably "very close to the maximum," she said. There are about 1,200 international students at MU but not all of them are non-residents for tax purposes.

This year, Todd and her team of volunteers have helped about 400 non-resident aliens fill in their tax return forms in the February session and she expected to fill 500 more this week.

Todd said she did foreign student advising at MU for 13 years and saw how confusing and frustrating it was for the NRAs when there was no help on campus.

"I heard from people that their tax returns weren't always done correctly, or they didn't do it at all, because they didn't have help," said Todd, who then conceived the idea for this assistance program.

She said the repercussions of not filing the tax returns was more than the loss of money, it was about breaking the law.

"In an age when non-residents are being scrutinized so carefully, it's essential that they follow all laws in the United States, including tax laws," she said. "That's really crucial, and we're here to provide the service to help them do that."

Simon Cowell, a teacher in the School of Mathematics agreed. As an English citizen, he said not filing tax returns would affect him in more ways than just money.

"It will make it very difficult to return to the U.S. next year when I apply for another visa," he said.

Todd said she sent word through MU Info on the Internet on Feb. 11 informing students about the filing of their tax returns.

Despite agreeing that this system has benefited them greatly, some NRAs said the Cashiers Office could do more to publicize this assistance. Many heard of the service through word-of-mouth.

Min Huang, a graduate student from China, used the program last year when she found out about it from her roommate.

Min said it was a "great help" and is grateful for the service. However, she said the Cashiers Office should not have mixed the notice informing students about filing tax returns with the MU Student Info announcements.

"How many people will pay attention to that kind of e-mail? Especially graduate students, because most of the MU announcements, the activities, are for undergraduate students. Most of the graduates will probably neglect all those e-mails," she said.

Another Chinese graduate student, Ben Wang, forgot to file his tax returns last year. Wang said when he received his tax forms last year, he was unsure what to do and left them alone.

"Some of my friends have the same problem," Wang said. "They have no information about the tax returns, so, like me, they think it is not important and they just leave it."

He is planning to file his tax returns today.

Todd said students were informed at least three times that they were required to file tax returns: once during the mandatory international student orientation, another when she spoke to some of them personally, and finallly through the e-mail.

"We just provide the services and get the word out the best as we can," she said. "But like any service anywhere in the world, there are going to be some people who missed the information, who ignore the information, or who didn't understand the information. We just do the best that we can."

All persons who have U.S income are required to file tax returns, even if they are not American citizens. Most students with F-1 and J-1 immigration status may be employed on-campus for up to 20 hours per week when school is in session and up to full time during authorized vacation periods. Employment of postdoctoral researchers and others in J-1 non-student status is also common. They are typically taxed at much higher rates than resident aliens and citizens.

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