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How to File Back Tax Returns with the IRS

4 min read

4 min read

Back tax returns, at a glance:

  • Not filing a required return is a serious issue with the IRS.
  • If you don’t file, the IRS can file a return for you — with taxes and penalties.
  • You should take special care when preparing and filing late returns, because the IRS gives them extra scrutiny.

You can get expert help filing back tax returns with the IRS.

What you need to know about back tax returns

Most taxpayers are required to file a tax return every year. The IRS keeps a record of taxpayers who are required to file but don’t – and the IRS can pursue those returns. That can mean stiff consequences and increasing complications.

If you have back tax returns, the IRS can charge you expensive penalties, hold your refund and even file a return for you without any credits or deductions in your favor (called a substitute for return).

Whether you have one or many returns to file, you or your tax pro should start taking steps right away to file an accurate and complete tax return that will get you back in good standing with the IRS.

Here’s what to do.

How to file back tax returns

1. Get all the information needed to file the past-due return.

  • Start by requesting your wage and income transcripts from the IRS. These transcripts will help you identify the Forms W-2 and 1099 that you will need to prepare your return. You can also order your account transcript to see any estimated tax payments or other credits posted to your account for that tax year. Learn how to research your IRS account.
  • Gather information about self-employment, investments, and any other income that isn’t on file with the IRS.
  • Review your situation for deductions and credits.
  • If necessary, ask the IRS for more time to file the late return, to avoid any enforcement actions (such as a substitute for return, levy, or lien).
  • Identify any special processing needed for your late-filed return (such as date-stamping or filing with an IRS compliance unit).
  • If you have several past-due returns to file, the IRS normally requires that you file returns for the current year and past six years. But your specific facts and IRS rules will determine how far back you should file.

2. Complete the return and submit it to the appropriate IRS unit.

  • Complete your tax returns accurately. It’s best to double check your return against your IRS transcripts to make sure that you included all your income as it was reported to the IRS, and that you included all your withholding/estimated tax payments.
  • If you owe and can’t pay the full amount, consider requesting a payment arrangement with the filed return.
  • Attach a penalty relief request to the return, if applicable. If you have one past-due return to file, you may qualify for penalty relief on any failure to file and failure to pay penalties. If you have multiple returns to file, it’s more difficult to process the return and manage the resulting penalties and balances owed. You’ll need to investigate your penalty relief options further in these complex situations.
  • Send your return to the right IRS location.
  • Make sure you get proof that you filed, in case the IRS doesn’t process your return or you experience related compliance activity (like IRS collection notices, a lien, a levy, or an unfiled return investigation).

3. Monitor return processing and other compliance activities.

  • Periodically request your account transcripts or contact the appropriate IRS unit to make sure that the IRS processed your return.
  • If the IRS took prior actions on the unfiled return (such as filing a substitute for return), follow up to ensure that the IRS closed the case with no matters outstanding.

How to get expert help

Your H&R Block tax professional can help you track down all the information you’ll need to file a past-due return, resolve any related compliance issues, and communicate with the IRS. Get help from a trusted IRS expert.

Bring these six items to your appointment

  1. A copy of your notices, especially the most recent notices, on the unfiled tax years
  2. Any information statements (Forms W-2, 1099) that you may have for the year(s) in question
  3. Any state withholding or estimated tax payments you made
  4. Information needed to complete your tax return
  5. If you have a levy in place, your employer’s and/or financial institution’s contact information (name, address, phone and fax number)
  6. A copy of any tax returns filed the year before and after the unfiled year(s) in question

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