How to file back taxes

If your taxes are past due, you may own fines and interest. Here's what you need to do to get up to speed with the IRS.

Zack Sigel

Zack Sigel

Published November 7, 2019

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Every year, most people have to file a tax return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). If you don’t file a tax return, you may be charged a late-filing fee and, if you owe taxes, late-payment fees may also apply.

The longer you wait, the more likely it becomes that the IRS will put a lien on your property and eventually seize it.

You can avoid these fees and other legal consequences by filing past-due taxes. In fact, filing back taxes is the only way to get your tax refund, if you’re owed one. Luckily, filing prior-year taxes isn’t much different than filing them for the current year.

To file a past-due tax return, you need to find the applicable Form 1040 for the tax year in the archives on the IRS’s website. (Remember, your tax year isn’t the year you’re supposed to file your tax return; it’s the year you paid them, which is the previous year.) You’ll also want to make sure you have all the relevant financial documents on hand, like your Form W-2 and Form 1099 if applicable.

Read on to learn more:

Where do I file back taxes?

For current-year taxes — taxes you paid during the tax year, which you report on your tax return the following year — you have several ways to file your tax return. That means either using one of the IRS’s electronic filing options (e-File), mailing paper tax returns, or using a certified tax professional.

If you purchased tax preparation software, such as Turbo Tax, you can e-File straight from the app.

But with back taxes, e-File isn’t an option unless you go through a tax professional. You need to fill out the tax form by hand, or use tax preparation software, and then print out the filled-out forms and mail them. On the IRS’s website, you can find the address of the IRS office you need to mail your returns to for your state.

Which documents do I need to file back taxes?

You’ll need to submit a number of different documents and forms to the IRS, whether you’re filing a tax return for a prior year or current year. These include not just the individual tax return document (Form 1040), but income statements like your W-2.

Tax forms

For individuals, the form to file is 1040. But you need to file the Form 1040 from the tax year you’re filing taxes for, because tax law changes frequently and new forms are issued. The IRS’s archive of tax forms can help you locate the correct version.

Additionally, you’ll be able to find any “schedule” forms. Schedules are supplementary documents to Form 1040 that allow you to claim deductions and indicate other types of income that you might owe tax on.

Income statements

Your income as well as any taxes you paid on that income during the tax year will appear on forms W-2 or 1099, depending on your employment classification.

If you didn’t save your W-2 or 1099, then you may be able to receive a copy from your employer. But if that doesn’t work, you can get your tax transcripts from the IRS, which will show how much income was reported for each tax year. Note that if your income in a given year wasn’t reported, you may still need to pay taxes on it.

You’ll also need to pay taxes on interest income, dividends, and capital gains. Those might not be reported to the IRS, and you may need to estimate how much tax you owe on that income.

Deductions, exemptions, and credits

Personal allowances — deductions, exemptions, and credits — reduce your tax burden for each tax year. While some personal allowances may have been removed or altered by law in a given tax year, you can still claim them for a prior tax year in accordance with the tax law of that year.

To make filing your back taxes easier, get the relevant documents for each deduction, exemption, and credit together. Some of those documents include:

  • Receipts for contributions to a traditional IRA, which can lower your taxable income
  • Mortgage statements, as mortgage interest can be deducted
  • Form 1098-E, which shows how much student loan interest you paid. Student loan interest is tax-deductible.
  • Medical bills, which may also be deductible if they exceed the 7.5% of your income
  • Receipts for charitable donations
  • Receipts for unreimbursed employee expenses, such as for travel or union dues (this deduction was removed in tax year 2018 and on)
  • Documents showing the value of any casualty and theft losses

If you have unpaid taxes when you die, your spouse may have to pay them out of pocket.

Life insurance can help pay off your unpaid taxes instead.

How much does it cost to file back taxes?

You can file your back taxes for free. If you owe taxes, you may be required to pay a failure-to-file penalty, which will be a percentage of the unpaid tax. For tax returns that are over two months late, a fee of either $210 or 100% of the tax amount will be charged, whichever is lesser. (In 2020, the fee will increase to $215.)

You may also be charged interest on the unpaid balance as well as recurring failure-to-pay penalties on the unpaid balance until the penalties equal 25%.

However, if you’re owed a refund, then you won’t be required to pay failure-to-file or failure-to-pay penalties.

To maximize your refund, you may want to enlist the help of a tax professional or use tax preparation software. The latter may be more affordable, but you’ll still need to pay. While free filing is available for current-year tax returns (if you meet certain conditions), tax prep companies usually charge for access to software for prior-year tax returns.

Can I still get a refund from filing back taxes?

When you file a tax return, if you overpaid on your taxes for the applicable tax year then you’ll be eligible for a refund. This is true even for previous years, with one caveat: you have only up to three years from the day those taxes were due to claim the refund.

For example, if you owe the IRS a tax return for tax year 2016, then your tax return was initially due on April 15, 2017. That means that you have until April 15, 2020, to file your tax return and receive your refund for taxes paid in 2015.

Payment of a refund for back taxes

Refunds are usually paid via either check or direct deposit, based on which method you choose when you file your tax return. You can also choose either of these options for receiving the refund for prior-year returns.

It may take around six weeks for the IRS to process your prior-year tax return.

The one exception is if you’re filing an amended return, which corrects information on a previously filed tax return. In this case, you must receive the refund in check form.

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