School of Law tax clinic helps St. Louis woman keep her home

Students and faculty working in the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic at Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law were able to help a St. Louis woman reduce her tax debt and keep her house.

The woman, referred to as “Katie,” suffered catastrophic medical setbacks and was forced to leave her longtime career. Without the ability to work, she withdrew all of her retirement funds to purchase a home. Unknowingly, she failed to have enough withheld from her distribution and ended up owing a large sum of money for taxes.

“Katie reached out to us for help with her tax problem,” said Sarah Narkiewicz, associate dean of clinical education at the School of Law and director of the Low Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC).

“Katie had a lien placed against her home and was in danger of getting her Social Security garnished,” Narkiewicz said. “We helped Katie by creating an offer in compromise. We were able to reduce her debt from over $65,000 to $1.”

Offers in compromise allow people to settle their tax debts for less than the full amount they owe.

The Missouri Bar Association produced a video about Katie’s story.

Helping hundreds of area residents

The School of Law established the LITC in fall 2014. Since its inception, 134 student attorneys have participated in the clinic and provided 34,000 hours of free legal services to low-income and English-as-a-second-language taxpayers, primarily in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois. It helps people who are at or below 250% of the federal poverty line.

LITC faculty, staff and volunteer attorneys have dedicated over 25,000 hours to clinic-related activities, over 5,600 of which were volunteer hours. The student attorneys, in collaboration with LITC faculty, have represented or consulted with nearly 500 taxpayers, secured over $113,000 in federal refunds, and corrected or compromised over $1.5 million in federal tax liabilities, penalties and interest.

“Katie was someone who worked hard her entire life, did all the right things, tried to comply with her tax obligations,” Narkiewicz said. “After catastrophic medical issues and a simple mistake with her withholding, she found herself in an untenable and terrifying situation. Katie could be any of us. Getting to use your legal skills to help someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford representation is amazing.”

The tax clinic is just one of many that the School of Law operates. The clinical education program at the law school is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The first clinic, “Introductory Clinic,” was established in 1973 in conjunction with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. It was housed in a storefront on Delmar Boulevard.

The program now offers 19 distinct professional practice opportunities across the country and internationally, collectively providing more than 100,000 hours of free legal assistance each year.

“More than 90% of WashU law students participate in our clinical programs, making a meaningful difference in St. Louis and becoming better attorneys in the process,” Narkiewicz said.