It's tax season — the time of year when Canadians comb through a year's worth of T4s, receipts and financial records and scramble to make sense of it all by the April 30 filing deadline.

If you're not familiar with the process, especially as a newcomer to Canada or a student filing for the first time, the task can be overwhelming, not to mention potentially expensive.

But there are options for those who are in difficult circumstances or need help navigating Canada's tax system.

Across the country, free, volunteer-run tax clinics are available to people who have low incomes or are new to Canada and may not have familiarity with English or who have other reasons for needing help filing their return.

"You might have a disability, you might have problems reading, you might have been educated in a foreign language — the English [on tax forms] is a little convoluted," said Perry Jensen, a spokesman for Certified Professional Accountants Ontario. "There are a lot of individuals out there who find it daunting."

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A couple waits at a Liberty Tax Service office in Toronto. Those who can't afford to pay tax professionals can turn to a number of free tax clinics organized through the CRA's community volunteer program. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Tax clinics are offered by community organizations in partnership with the Canada Revenue Agency through its Community Volunteer Income Tax Program and by chartered professional accountant associations, as well as through municipal agencies, university student unions and private accounting and tax preparation firms.

Most run from mid-February until the filing deadline, which this year is April 30, and some are even offered year-round in order to help people file returns for previous years. 

In some smaller communities, CRA-sponsored clinics operate on a drop-off and pick-up basis rather than having clients schedule appointments and sit-down interviews.

Last year, more than 15,000 volunteers affiliated with more than 2,000 organizations filed a total of 606,128 income tax returns through the community volunteer program, according to CRA spokesperson Soya Oh.

Simple tax scenarios only

Typically, to qualify for services at a free tax clinic, your annual income can't exceed:

  • $30,000 for single individuals.
  • $40,000 for couples.
  • $35,00 for adults with one child (with $2,500 added for each additional dependent).
'It's nice to have a friendly face across the desk and know that the person knows what they're doing.' - Perry Jensen, spokesman, Charted Professional Accountants Ontario

"However, community organizations have the flexibility to adjust these income levels based on the local economic environment, the population they serve, and their own capacity," Oh said in an email to CBC News.

Francois Yabit, the executive director of Northwood Neighbourhood Services in Toronto, said his organization's tax clinic handles simple returns limited to employment or retirement income and benefits such as the Ontario Disability Support Program and other social assistance programs.

Under CRA rules, clinics like Northwood, which serves the North York area of Toronto, are not allowed to take on more complex scenarios like business expenses, property income or returns for the deceased. 

"If you have income from investments, if [it's] more than $1,000, we can't help you," said Yabit. "We help those who cannot afford [it]."

Volunteer-run, free tax clinics also can't offer instant refunds like tax discounters and professional tax preparation firms can.

Used by seniors, newcomers, unemployed

CPA Ontario's Jensen said his association's members volunteer with about 200 community agencies throughout Ontario that offer free tax clinics — at  seniors homes, multicultural community groups, employment offices and even homeless shelters.

"So, it's a wide variety of people, and what brings them together is that they have low income, and they have needs for someone to do their taxes," he said.

Even with the proliferation of free, simple-to-use tax software that makes it much easier for individuals to fill out their returns themselves, the clinics offer something those programs can't: a real person to deal with.

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Tax forms can be daunting, says accountant Perry Jensen, but they're the key to getting benefits — money in your pocket — from the government. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"It's a more personal service, and for a lot of people, it just is more comfortable," said Jensen. "It's nice to have a friendly face across the desk and know that the person knows what they're doing."

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Alberta (ICAA), for example, serves mostly the elderly, sending its volunteers into seniors and long-term care homes.

"A lot of seniors, especially, they don't even have a computer," said Juanita Caovilla, who co-ordinates the clinics for the ICAA.

"They can't access the free software and do their own taxes because maybe they don't have the ability or they don't have the tools."

Stricter screening of volunteers

Clinics organized by professional associations like the ICAA and CPA Ontario are staffed mostly by chartered accountants or students working toward becoming CPAs. The organizations provide training for volunteers each year, and students are also overseen by qualified CPAs and mentors.

CRA-approved clinics don't require volunteers to be professional accountants, but they must have basic knowledge of income tax and an affiliation with a community organization.

Oath of citizenship

New Canadians, shown at a citizenship ceremony above, are among those who seek out help with their returns at volunteer-run tax clinics. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

In past years, volunteers did not have to be affiliated with a community organization but were selected by the CRA and put on a master list for organizations to choose from.

As of this year, volunteers are screened first by the community organization, and then must register with the CRA online and apply for their own EFile number so they can file on behalf of other individuals (in the past, the organization would get one master EFile registration for all volunteers).

'The whole [screening] process taking longer will mean you have much more people who are really interested in following through.' - Qaiser Khan, runs YWCA tax clinic

Soon, all volunteers will have to also provide proof of a police record check to their organization before registering with the CRA — a change to be phased in by 2016 that came out of reforms to the screening process introduced after a volunteer with was found to be doing tax returns at a CRA-approved clinic.

The screening process takes about four to six weeks, said Qaiser Khan, a settlement counsellor with YWCA Toronto who runs the organization's CRA-sponsored tax clinic and calls the recent changes "a good thing."

"The whole process taking longer will mean you have much more people who are really interested in following through," she said.

Khan said it allows her to look for exactly the types of people she needs, in terms of reliability and qualifications.

"Last year, I had volunteers that were on the [CRA] list … and then they didn't show, and that was really hard for me to process people's returns because I had booked appointments," she said.

Missed credits

Once approved by the CRA, volunteers get trained — mostly through online webinars — and get free access to tax software on which to practice their skills 

"We're looking for people who have prepared returns in the past or who are very familiar with the tax system in Canada," she said. "Mostly people with a background in finances."

Some of the most common issues Khan encounters at her tax clinic are people not filing their returns for a few years and missing out on certain credits, such as the child tax benefit, GST/HST credit or property tax credit. For retired individuals, a frequent problem is failing to file a return and being at risk of having their pension payments cut off.

Khan advises people to file an income tax return even if they didn't make much money in previous years, because it opens the door to getting benefits.

"You don't get that sort of thing from the government unless you file a tax return that shows that you need it," she said.