Can’t Find Your Previous Years’ Federal Tax Returns? Here’s How to Get Access

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Updated on Thursday, March 24, 2016

Federal Tax Returns

There are several circumstances when having a previous year’s Federal tax return can be helpful. Perhaps you need a copy for a loan application, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is auditing you, or you’re in the process of becoming a citizen and want to bring it to a naturalization interview. But, what happens if you can’t find it or a vindictive ex-spouse is withholding access to the document?

No matter if you lost your files, they were destroyed, or you simply didn’t keep great records, you may be able to request a copy of your federal tax return.

How to order a copy of your tax return 

If you hired a tax preparer to file a previous year’s return, he or she may have a copy of your return. Check with them first as you may simply need to make a phone call or send an email. If you filed on your own or the preparer doesn’t have a copy, you can request a one from the IRS. Copies are generally available for the current and previous six years according to the IRS website.

To request a copy of your tax return, complete and mail the one-page Form 4506 to the appropriate addresses listed in the instructions. You’ll need to fill out your name; Social Security number (SSN), Employer Identification Number (EIN), or Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN); current address; and previous address if you moved. There is $50 fee for each copy, which you must pay with a check or money order. For copies of previous joint returns, both partners’ names and Tax Identification Numbers must be listed, but only one person needs to sign the form.

It may take up to 75 calendar days for the IRS to process your request. However, if you live in a federal disaster area, you may be able to get a copy expedited to you for free.

A transcript may suffice

Instead of paying and waiting for a copy of your tax return, a transcript may serve just as well. The transcript is on overview that includes many of the attached forms and schedules and shows most line items from your return. You may be able to satisfy the requirements of lenders, including mortgage and student loan issuers, as well as immigration services with a transcript. However, only the current and previous three years’ complete tax return transcripts are available. Transcripts of the information from W-2s, 1099s, 1098s, and 5498s may be available for up to 10 years.

You can request a copy of a transcript from the IRS for free by online, over the phone, by mail or fax, or in person.

  • Online: Fill out an application online with the Get Transcript You’ll need to provide your SSN or ITIN, date of birth, and address. When you request a transcript online, it may not include information from W-2s, 1099s, 1098s, or other income forms.
  • Phone: Call 1-800-908-9946 and follow the prompts. You’ll need to verify your SSN and the number portion of your street address. Directions are available in English and Spanish.
  • Mail or Fax: Complete Form 4506T or 4506T-EZ, which require the same identifying information as Form 4506, and fax or mail it as directed in the instructions.
  • In-Person: To request a copy of your transcript in person you can visit a Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC). Some TACs offer appointments, but others provide services on a first-come-first-served

After making a request online, by fax, or over the phone, it can take five to 10 days to receive your transcript. It can take up to 30 days if you mail a request. An IRS representative at a TAC may be able to get you a transcript immediately although there could be a wait to meet with someone if you can’t make an appointment. An alternative way to quickly get a transcript is to call the IRS at 1-800-829-0922 and request the representative fax you a copy. You’ll need access to a fax machine and may need to wait on hold, particularly during the busy tax season.

Safe ways to keep copies in the future

Sometimes the loss of tax return is inevitable, but there are steps you can take to decrease the likelihood of missing a tax return in the future. Always print or store a copy after you file a return. Consider purchasing a fireproof safe to store paper copies of your returns at home. You can also save electronic copies on a thumb drive and keep it in a safe deposit box at a local bank. Although it’s a relief to know that the IRS keeps records for a while, there may be times when you need copies of even older tax returns.