How to file back taxes

Where to send your old tax return and the penalties you may owe for filing late

Derek Silva


Derek Silva

Derek Silva

Senior Editor & Personal Finance Expert

Derek is a former senior editor and personal finance expert at Policygenius, where he specialized in financial data, taxes, estate planning, and investing. Previously, he was a staff writer at SmartAsset.

Updated|10 min read

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Key takeaways

  • Back taxes are any past-due tax returns you have, whether you owe money or expect a refund

  • You can e-file some back taxes through certain online filing services, but you will probably need to print your tax return and mail a physical copy to the IRS

  • You can find all necessary forms for prior-year tax returns on the IRS website

  • If you’re missing tax documents, like a W-2 or 1099, you can get a free copy by requesting a tax transcript from the IRS

Most people file a federal income tax return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) every year. Back taxes are any tax returns that you didn’t file in the year they were due. To file a past-due tax return, you should gather all tax documents that list your income, like W-2 forms and 1099s. If your employer sent you a form that you no longer have, either reach out to your employer for a copy or get them from the IRS by requesting a free tax transcript.

Then you should fill out your tax return, starting with Form 1040, the main tax form. Always make sure to use the correct year’s forms since they change annually. You can find all forms in the archives on the IRS website.

If you need help, some online tax preparation services allow you to fill out your forms for a fee. A handful of services also allow you to e-file, but this isn’t available for all tax years and it’s more likely that you will need to print out your return and mail it to the IRS. Working with a tax professional can also simplify the process for you.

It’s important to file your back taxes because the IRS can charge you multiple late fees. If you owe a tax bill, the IRS can also put a lien on your property and eventually seize it. Tax debt can also get you rejected for a loan or mortgage. Even if you can’t afford to pay your full tax bill, file as soon as you can. Then you can create a payment plan with the IRS. Filing back taxes is also the only way to get a refund, but you must file within three years.

Tax documents you need to file back taxes

You need to submit a number of different tax forms and documents to the IRS to file your tax return:

  • Form 1040, the main federal income tax form

  • Income statements, like W-2 and 1099 forms

  • Additional documentation for certain tax credits and deductions

Form 1040

Form 1040 is the main tax form that individuals need to complete. The form is updated every year, so it’s very important to complete the right version. In particular, there was a big change from 2017 to 2018 because of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

If you file with a professional or through an online service, you should be able to select the year of the taxes you’re filing. If you’re filing on your own, look for the correct version on the IRS archive of prior-year tax forms. The IRS archive also includes other “schedules” and tax forms that you may need to attach to your Form 1040.

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If you’re filing a late tax return for 2020 (originally due by May 2021), start with our guide to filling out Form 1040.

Income statements

To complete your tax return, you need to know how much income you earned in a given year. For most taxpayers, that means you need to have your W-2 forms and 1099 forms, depending on the type of employment and income you had.

If you don’t have your old W-2s or 1099s, you can request a copy from your employer or you can get a free copy by from the IRS by requesting a tax transcript. If your employer sent you a W-2 or a version of the 1099, they also submitted it to the IRS, and you can get a copy of that in the form tax transcript.

If you had income that wasn’t reported to you on a form — like interest from a savings account or capital gains from investment dividends — you still need to report it on your tax return. This may require you to go through old statements. For example, most banks don’t send a 1099-INT if you made less than $10 of interest. Ideally, you should go through your old bank statements so you can include the amount of interest you earned.

Documents for tax credits and deductions

Tax deductions and tax credits reduce the amount of income tax you owe for the year (your tax liability). You may need to gather additional tax documents to claim specific types of credits and deductions. For example, you probably need to have a copy of Form 1098-T if you want to deduct college tuition with the lifetime learning credit.

Even if credits and deductions were changed or eliminated for future years, you can claim them if they were available for the tax return you’re claiming. Learn more about the difference between tax credits and deductions as well as the difference between different types of deductions.

Common documents you may need include:

  • Form 1098-E so you can claim the student loan interest deduction

  • Form 8889 if you contributed to a health savings account (HSA) at any point during the year

  • Form 5498 so you can potentially deduct your contributions to a traditional IRA

  • Details from alimony payments you paid or received

  • Receipts or medical bills, which may be deductible through the medical expense deduction if they exceed 7.5% of your income

  • Mortgage statements, so you can claim the mortgage interest deduction

  • Receipts from charitable donations for the charitable contributions deduction

  • Receipts for unreimbursed employee expenses, such as for travel or union dues (this deduction was removed starting in 2018)

  • Moving expenses if you moved for a job (this was restricted to military members starting in 2018)

  • Documents showing the value of any casualty and theft losses, not including losses already covered by your homeowners insurance policy

3 ways to file back taxes

If you miss Tax Day and need to file your taxes late for the current year, you can still e-file your return until November. The IRS announces in October when exactly it will stop accepting e-filed returns for that tax year. So if you’re filing 2020 taxes but miss filing by May 17, 2021, you had until November 2021 to e-file.

If you’re filing a federal tax return from a previous year, you may need to mail a physical copy of your tax return to the IRS. You may be able to e-file your back taxes, but this is only available for certain tax years and through certain online tax-filing services.

There are three ways you can complete your back taxes.

Filing back taxes by hand

Complete your return on your own, for free, using the tax forms available on the IRS website (see the tax forms section above) and then mail your tax return to the IRS.

For help with your tax filing, try our guide to filing income taxes.

Filing back taxes with tax-preparation software

Using an online tax-filing service will cost money, but it will offer more guidance and information about which forms you need and how to complete them. However, some online products only allow you to access a few years of prior-year tax forms. (Some tax-filing companies have software you can download to help fill out prior-year tax returns.) Select services do allow you to e-file back taxes for certain tax years, but it’s likely that you will need to print your tax return after filling it out and then mail it to the IRS.

Filing back taxes with a tax professional

Working with a tax preparer in person is more expensive than using an online service, but you will get the help of an expert no matter what tax year your return is for. Consider this option especially if your taxes changed dramatically, like if you had a divorce. (Learn more about divorce and taxes.)

Where do I send back taxes?

If the IRS mailed you a notice about your late taxes, you should mail your return to the address listed in that notice. Otherwise, where you mail your old tax returns depends on where you live and whether or not you’re including a payment with your return. The IRS instructions for Form 1040 of the year you’re filing for should also include the proper mailing addresses.

Mailing address for back taxes

Your residenceMailing address if you are not including a paymentMailing address if you are including a payment
Alabama, North Carolina, South CarolinaDepartment of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Kansas City, MO 64999-0002 | Internal Revenue Service

P.O. Box 1214

Charlotte, NC 28201-1214 | | Alaska, California, Hawaii, Washington | Department of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Fresno, CA 93888-0002 | Internal Revenue Service

P.O. Box 7704

San Francisco, CA 94120-7704 | | Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming | Department of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Ogden, UT 84201-0002 | Internal Revenue Service

P.O. Box 802501

Cincinnati, OH 45280-2501 | | Connecticut, District of Columbia, Maryland, Rhode Island, West Virginia | Department of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Ogden, UT 84201-0002 | Internal Revenue Service

P.O. Box 931000

Louisville, KY 40293-1000 | | Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont | Department of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Kansas City, MO 64999-0002 | Internal Revenue Service

P.O. Box 37008

Hartford, CT 06176-7008 | | Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas | Department of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Austin, TX 73301-0002 | Internal Revenue Service

P.O. Box 1214

Charlotte, NC 28201-1214 | | Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin | Department of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Fresno, CA 93888-0002 | Internal Revenue Service

P.O. Box 802501

Cincinnati, OH 45280-2501 | | Pennsylvania | Department of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Ogden, UT 84201-0002 | Internal Revenue Service

P.O. Box 37008

Hartford, CT 06176-7008 | | A foreign country, a U.S. possession or territory (or if you are a non-resident, a dual-status alien, have an APO, FPO address, you file Form 2555, 2555-EZ, or 4563) | Department of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Austin, TX 73301-0215

USA | Internal Revenue Service

P.O. Box 1303

Charlotte, NC 28201-1303 |

How much does it cost to file back taxes?

You can file your back taxes for free if you complete the forms yourself. You may have to pay tax preparation fees if you work with a tax preparer or if you use an online filing service to help fill in your forms.

The biggest potential cost is a penalty from the IRS for failing to file on time. If you owed a tax bill that year, you will have to pay for filing late and you will pay interest on any amount you owed. You can pay these penalties either through a check that you include with your tax return, or through the IRS online portal (which allows you to pay with a debit or credit card.) You will not have any tax penalties if the IRS owed you a refund that year.

How much tax penalties cost

There are two possible penalties you could pay if you owe back taxes:

  • A failure-to-file penalty when you file late. It’s worth 5% of your unpaid taxes and it accrues each month until it reaches 25% of your unpaid taxes. If you are owed a refund from the IRS, you won’t have to pay this penalty.

  • A failure-to-pay penalty applies any time you don’t pay your full tax bill on time. It’s worth between 0.5% and 1% of your unpaid taxes, accruing each month until it reaches 25% of your unpaid taxes. You don’t have to pay this tax if you’re getting a tax refund from the IRS.

If you continue not to pay your taxes, the amount you owe could come out of future tax refunds, and the IRS could even put a lien on your assets or property. Read more about the tax penalties for filing your taxes late.

What if I can’t afford to pay my back taxes?

Even if you can’t afford to pay taxes you owe in full, always file your return as soon as you can. Then you can request an additional 60 to 120 days to pay. Make this request either online through the IRS’ Online Payment Agreement application or by calling the IRS at 800-829-1040. There is no fee for requesting extra time to make payments.

If you need more than 120 days to pay off your full debt, you can request an installment agreement from the IRS where you make monthly payments until your balance is fully paid. If monthly payments are still unaffordable, you may qualify for an offer in compromise, which is when the IRS cancels your debt for a lesser amount than what you owe.

Can I still get a refund from filing back taxes?

If the IRS owed you a tax refund any year, you need to file your return within three years of the original due date or you forfeit your refund. If you had filed for a tax extension that year, your due date was likely October 15.

The three-year deadline also applies to individuals who would have gotten a refund only because of certain tax credits, like the earned income tax credit.

If you need to file a tax return for multiple years, the IRS may also withhold all of your refunds until you file all of your back taxes.

Read more: Will I get a tax refund this year?

How the IRS pays refunds for back taxes

Like other tax returns, the IRS can pay refunds to you via either direct deposit or a check. Make sure to choose the appropriate option on your tax return when you file. If you opt for direct deposit, always double check your account number before filing. You may not be able to get your money back of the IRS sends your refund to the wrong place.

An important exception to note is that the IRS only pays refunds via check for amended returns, which are tax returns you file to fix a mistake from a previous year’s return. Also keep in mind that it may take about six weeks just for the IRS to process your prior-year tax return (after they receive it in the mail).

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