For the vast majority of Americans, navigating the U.S. Internal Revenue Code can be a daunting task, especially for those without the financial means to get assistance from professionals. In a state like Alabama, where roughly 19 percent of residents live below the poverty line, many have to face the Internal Revenue Service on their own, struggling to decipher complex issues that often come with short deadlines and stiff penalties.
However, many low-income residents throughout the state may qualify for free tax assistance through Legal Services Alabama. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit law firm provides “civil legal assistance to low-income individuals and families” throughout the state.
Currently, LSA has offices in Birmingham, Dothan, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery, Selma and Tuscaloosa, but also assists thousands through a free statewide call center. Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood serves on LSA’s board of directors, a position also held by local attorney and lobbyist Beth Lyons.
Tim Kingston, a staff attorney in LSA’s Mobile office, said many times the organization’s clients seek assistance “when they’re already up against the wall” because of legal issues they may otherwise be unable to defend themselves from.
Specifically, LSA’s tax assistance program helps hundreds of families every year qualify for and retain crucial tax credits. However, LSA also fully represents multiple clients at no charge during challenges to tax liens and wage garnishments.
According to Kingston, LSA handles those cases like any other private law firm — a service he said can be critical for its clients who are already struggling financially.
“When someone is in a low-income job and all of sudden they’re getting 25 percent of their wages garnished because they had a judgment entered against them, that can swing them right back into poverty,” Kingston said. “It’s such a critical thing when you’re already living on the edge anyway, and then the IRS comes in and freezes your bank accounts. So now you can’t pay your rent.”
According to Kingston, LSA is currently representing around 150 clients in “ongoing disputes with the IRS.” However, he said there are thousands more residents that get tax assistance and other legal service by way of the LSA’s call center. Recently LSA added more staff attorneys, which Kingston said would allow the organization to take on even more clients going forward.
According to Kingston, one of the biggest issues LSA handles on a regular basis is ensuring that qualifying residents can secure and retain the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Enacted in 1975, the EITC has been expanded by tax legislation on a number of occasions and today provides substantial assistance to low-income working families with children.
The EITC was credited with bringing 6.5 million people above the poverty line in 2012, but some are still critical of the policy because it doesn’t provide the same benefits to workers without children and can also be complicated to understand for those claiming it for the first time.
“It has been characterized as probably one of the most important anti-poverty programs in the country, including in Alabama,” Kingston said. “We often represent people before the IRS to make sure they’re not being denied the credit, and we make sure they can work through the often difficult and complex legal issues that surround it.”
Recently, LSA has been trying to get the word out about the programs they offer so more residents who qualify can take advantage of the service. According to its website, LSA will “generally” not handle any case with more than $50,000 in dispute in a single tax year.
To qualify, taxpayers must be a resident of Alabama. However, each taxpayer’s situation is evaluated individually — taking into consideration factors like native language, current income level, any issues with domestic violence, physical and/or mental disability, household size, medical status and the complexity of the tax issue in question.
More information about LSA, its requirements and services is available on the organization’s website at legalservicesalabama.org. The LSA staff can be also reached toll free at 1-866-456-4995 weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 2-4 p.m.