To give low-income working individuals and families the opportunity to have their income tax return prepared free of charge, Southern Bancorp and its nonprofit affiliate, Southern Bancorp Community Partners, are offering Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) at nine of Southern’s bank branches in Arkansas and Mississippi. Since 2005, Southern has hosted VITA sites in the area in partnership with the IRS. Marking its seventh year, the free tax preparation services kicked off January 13 and will run until April 17 at the selected VITA locations.

VITA is an IRS tax program providing free tax filing assistance to individuals and families with an annual earned income of $49,000 and below. Each of Southern’s volunteer tax preparers is IRS-certified. All tax returns are filed electronically for free, which means refunds are processed in half the time of returns filed on paper, particularly for taxpayers using direct deposit for their refunds. In 2011, Southern helped more than 2,000 people file their taxes, many of whom were eligible for tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit. While many paid tax preparers are advertising free tax services, they often encourage customers to purchase high cost products such as rapid refund anticipation loans.