Tax clinic a godsend when IRS is calling

The free service from the University of Idaho helps low-income people navigate often substantial bills and problems.

awebb@idahostatesman.comNovember 29, 2013 

Juanita Morales came to the University of Idaho College of Law tax clinic after receiving a $30,000 bill from the IRS. “It was horrible. I cried for days, until I got with you guys,” she told Barbara Lock, left, and the law students who work with the clinic. With Morales is her daughter, Yessenia, 10, and son, Jayden, who will turn 4 next week.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com

  • HOW YOU CAN HELP — AND GET HELP

    To make a donation, contact Terri Muse, development director, College of Law, University of Idaho — Boise, at 364-4044 or tmuse@uidaho.edu.

    Need the clinic’s help?

    The University of Idaho College of Law Tax Clinic is at 322 E. Front St., Suite 590, in Boise. Call 364-6166 for more information or to set up an appointment.

    Find a link to the clinic website at IdahoStatesman.com.

  • QUIETLY DOING GOOD • PART TWO

    PEOPLE AND GROUPS YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER HEARD OF HELP THEIR COMMUNITIES

    THURSDAY: The Eternal League of Friends shares Christmas with refugees.

    TODAY: U of I’s student tax clinic helps poor people fight the IRS.

    SATURDAY: Garden City’s Christmas Giveaway is a community affair.

    SUNDAY: One man, three tons of aluminum cans help Idaho City schools.

  • THURSDAY: The Eternal League of Friends shares Christmas with refugees.

    TODAY: U of I’s student tax clinic helps poor people fight the IRS.

    SATURDAY: Garden City’s Christmas Giveaway is a community affair.

    SUNDAY: One man, three tons of aluminum cans, help Idaho City schools.

Tax bills, law students, the Internal Revenue Service — none of those things is particularly suggestive of the groups usually profiled in holiday stories.

But in the case of the University of Idaho College of Law Tax Clinic, those dry topics turn inspiring and human.

As part of their education, third-year law students help low-income people who have tax problems. The clinic began in Moscow about eight years ago and is in its fourth year in Boise.

Grants from the IRS’ Taxpayer Advocates Service support the clinic. It also accepts donations from the public. It is one of three free clinics the law school offers, along with small-business and economic development clinics.

Tax clinic clients have debts that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

“But for most of our clients, it doesn’t matter if it’s $100 or $10,000. They can’t pay any of it,” said Barbara Lock, tax clinic director.

By and large, the clinic works with clients who are well-intentioned but find themselves in dire circumstances and without money to hire a lawyer.

Clients include a woman who heard from the IRS after her husband abandoned her and she filed as head of the household. She claimed the earned income credit without realizing her husband had already done so. The clinic helped establish that the woman was the true head of the household; she got the $5,000 credit.

A 62-year-old former carpenter had worked sporadically over the years, falling behind on his taxes. He was scraping by on wages of less than $1,000 a month from his new job as a caretaker, trying to pay his $10,000 tax bill.

He’d saved $300, but the clinic’s lawyers-in-training were able to work with the IRS to reduce his bill to a nominal $10. He voluntarily paid the $300 — as a point of pride.

COMMITTED TO THE CASE

The students worked on Juanita Morales’ case for three years. She said she doesn’t know where she would be without them.

“I am so blessed that the clinic was there when we needed it,” she said.

Morales and her husband got into trouble when their 2-year-old house-framing business failed during the recession. They hired a sketchy preparer to do their taxes. An IRS audit questioned their deductions and sent Morales a bill of $30,000.

Morales tried to talk to IRS staffers, she said, but left their office in tears.

The law students had better luck. They were able to get Morales’ $30,000 bill reduced to less than $8,000, she said.

Today, things are better for her family. She has a job at the Community Council of Idaho in Caldwell. Her husband still works in construction.

“The time the students gave to us, the commitment to our case, it took the weight off and we could breathe a sigh of relief,” said Morales.

That sentiment is common, said Lock. One appreciative client — not a person with deep pockets — insisted on making a $200 donation to the clinic after his case was resolved. Others pledge to make donations when their financial situations improve.

TEXTBOOK TOPICS TURN HUMAN

The clinic’s benefits flow both ways.

The program has eight students, and each works on four or five cases at a time.

Third-year student Alex Bray, 33, came to study at the university from San Diego. He’s graduating in December and will spend one more year getting his master’s in law. He intends to work in tax law.

“The clinic is a great gateway for immediate experience. You get a stack of clients on Day One, and you run with it,” Bray said.

Tax classes in law school are “bare-boned,” he said, the human element often missing. The tax clinic, where he’s been able to solve issues for eight clients so far, is all about human interaction.

“So often, people just want someone to listen, to be on their side,” said Bray. “People in these situations think they’re alone, that they’re the only ones dealing with something like this. They’re not. It’s life. It happens.”

At 33, he has some years behind him. Many of his colleagues at the clinic are a decade younger. It might be odd for a client to walk in to the clinic and meet a 24-year-old law student who says “I got this,” said Bray.

But clients “get zealous representation,” he said. “The students are so eager to learn, so eager to see results.”

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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