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GSU law clinic offers tax help for needy people

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Morrow resident Renee Thomas's husband, Steve, had vaguely talked with his wife about owing the government some money before he died in 2003.

However, she never thought the debt would be serious. She expected it might be a few thousand dollars because her husband rarely talked about it.

Her husband owned a business, so in Renee's mind, it was not a big deal. When he died from heart related problems, she knew the debt would become her responsibility.

Steve filed their join tax return every year, so she concluded they were not behind on their taxes.

Or, so she thought.

Following Steve's death, Renee was informed by the Internal Revenue Service there were four years of unpaid taxes, which had accumulated into a $41,000 debt.

"I just didn't realize how serious the debt was, I was shocked," she said. "After my husband died, the letters came, but I didn't want to open them at first. I knew it wasn't good news. My husband was at home on worker's compensation for the last year of his life, so there's no telling if the letters were coming before he died."

Thomas, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks after her husband died, was directed by a cancer survivor to the Tax Assistance Clinic run by Georgia State University's College of Law.

After about three years of work with the IRS, the clinic arranged a settlement between Thomas and the tax collection agency, which reduced her debt to $6,000.

The clinic opened in 1992, and has helped more than 2,000 low-income individuals resolve their tax related affairs.

A single person who makes less than $26,000 per year, or a family of four, where the total income of less than $53,000, qualify as low-income, according to the clinic's website.

Roughly 80 percent of people who seek help from the clinic receive a settlement that works in their favor, said Ron Blasi, the clinic's director and a professor of law at Georgia State.

According to Blasi, it can take anywhere from six months, to several years, to work out a settlement in a case.

There are about 20 second- and third-year law students who work in the Tax Assistance Clinic, which is actually offered as a semester-long course. These law students are not necessarily looking to embark on a career dealing with taxes, but they are looking for legal experience, Blasi said.

"The clinic was started with two goals in mind-to help train law students to give them more hands-on experience that would develop their professional skills, and to meet an unmet need within the community," Blasi said. "No organization was offering this kind of help to low-income people."

While the students working at the clinic are trying to get a settlement from the IRS, Blasi said it's not a case of "the people versus the IRS."

The students work with representatives from the IRS to review each client's case, examine documents and negotiate a settlement.

Blasi noted the cooperative relationship shared by the clinic and the IRS has resulted in more dramatic results than the one achieved in Thomas' case. The law professor cited the case of a man who became ill and accumulated $57,000 in tax liability debt. The students at the clinic worked with the IRS to negotiate a settlement of only $50 in that case.

"In some of these cases where the debt is even only a few thousand dollars, that's an astronomical amount to these people," Blasi said. "A lot of times, the people who come to us for help don't have that kind of money. They may not even have a cent to their name."

Thomas had glowing comments about the clinic's work to reduce her debt. The clinic's assistance allowed her to pay off the debt left after her husband's death, and allowed her to move on with her life.

"It took awhile, but I knew eventually it would be settled," she said. "I was just really pleased when they got my debt down. After they did that, I refinanced my home and used that money to pay off my debt."

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On the net:

Georgia State Tax Assistance Clinic: http://www.gsulitc.org