EZ Forms Are Still a Puzzle For Illiterate Taxpayers

IF you can read these words, you will probably have an easier time meeting Thursday's tax-filing deadline than the 27 million functional illiterates in the United States.

The simplest federal tax form - the 1040EZ - is written at a high school reading level. Other forms and instructions use college-level English.

People who are unable to read and fill out the forms themselves turn to friends, relatives, certified accountants, or tax-preparing companies.

"One of the skills I've maintained over the years is recruiting somebody to help me with things like that," says Elaine Williams of Boston. "For years, I signed contracts or things of that nature not knowing if my first-born child was given up or not."

Although Ms. Williams is improving her reading skills, a family member still steps in to help at tax-filing time.

"I don't own a home or anything, so basically all I need to do is the EZ form," Williams says. "But even at this point when my reading has improved, maybe I know what the words say [but] comprehending what they mean is another subject altogether."

Williams suggests that the instruction booklets should include more examples showing people how to fill out forms and calculate taxes.

Irving Sands of Nashua, N.H., is fortunate enough to have a brother who is an accountant to help with his taxes. "When I lived out in California, I stumbled through it myself," he says. "The reading at that time was real hard."

Mr. Sands is a self-employed painter, so his taxes are often complicated. After his brother completes the forms, he takes them to H&R Block for a final review. Dealing with a tax preparation service is less intimidating than talking to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), he says.

"It's more embarrassing when you go into an agency like the IRS and you have a problem with reading and you're asking them for help," Sands says. "They just assume that everyone can read and follow instructions easily. That's a real big oversight on their part."

Sands says many people with reading problems go to commercial tax preparers for help because they will do everything for you. "They're going to put in your name and then say, `Sign here on the X.' They point out exactly where to sign."

Kathryn Estridge of Eau Claire, Wis., paid American Tax Services $40 for help in filing her taxes this year. "All I had to do was just hand it to them; they filled out the form," she says.

The hardest part for many low-level readers is knowing how to go about getting the right forms, Ms. Estridge says. "I went to the post office to try to get the forms I needed and the guy said, `There's a bunch of forms right over there. Just go pick out what you need.' That makes you feel ant-size. I was so upset I just left."

At the library, Estridge had the same problem. "So I just picked out about 20 different forms and took them home," she says. Later, someone helped her sort out what she needed.

Many Americans who are unable to read tax forms own companies or hold well-paying jobs. "People who are low-literate can have quite successful businesses and have a good business sense," says Nancy Anderson, manager of special tax projects for H&R Block in Kansas City, Mo.

Nonreaders who come into one of the company's 9,000 offices are not treated differently from other customers, Ms. Anderson says.

"We train our people to treat all client's with respect," Anderson says. "As it develops that an individual has low literacy, we simply compensate by the thoroughness of the interview and the manner in which questions are asked. It's really the ability to empathize and recognize those situations and act accordingly without changing your attitude toward those people."

The IRS offers some help for functionally illiterate taxpayers as well. "We offer volunteer assistance at walk-in centers for someone who is unable to read or write," says Don Roberts, an IRS spokesman. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program and Tax Counseling for the Elderly also have volunteers available to help.

Finding a way to file taxes is just one of many daily mazes that functionally illiterate people navigate.

"Everyday burdens are so consuming 365 days a year that the tax forms are just another thing on top of ... job applications, medical forms, rents, checking accounts, mail, driver's licenses, street signs, and bank account information," says Roberta Soolman, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Massachusetts.

Much of the printed information in circulation could be simplified for easier reading, Ms. Soolman says. "There has been a movement in the health-care field to rewrite materials at a more reasonable reading level," she says. Some states are even rewriting their driver's license manuals. But federal and state tax forms are still difficult for many people to decipher.

"There's got to be an easier way," Estridge says.

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