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Before reaching out to the IRS

Before reaching out to the IRS, which is not necessarily a quick process, first look in all the usual places. For example, if you filed your tax return online, you should be able to get a copy of previously filed returns. Tax preparation software plans typically allow you to access returns prepared for at least the past three years.

If you used a paid preparer, you should be able to get a copy just by requesting one. Tax preparers usually maintain copies of tax returns for up to seven years, even if you are no longer a client.

But if you’ve already tried those routes and have come up empty, it’s time to reach out to the IRS. It won’t be as simple as getting a copy from the preparation services, but you will be able to access your old returns.

Let’s look at what’s involved in obtaining either a tax transcript or a full copy of a tax return.

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Try tax transcripts

Tax transcripts are summaries of your tax information, and not the return itself. While these aren't copies of your tax return, transcripts serve much the same purpose. For example, they can be used if you’re looking to present income information to a lender. Many lenders will even request access to your tax transcripts as a condition of final loan approval.

Though a tax transcript doesn’t provide the detail available in a tax return, it does have several advantages.

  • Transcripts can be ordered online and are available free of charge. However, there is a fee to order a full tax return copy from the IRS.
  • They’re also available much more quickly than returns. You can generally expect to receive transcripts within two to four weeks of making your online request. If you order by mail it will take closer to six weeks.
  • Tax transcripts are available from the IRS for the current tax year, as well as the previous three years (or longer in some cases). They can be ordered by completing IRS Form 4506-T, Request for Transcript of Tax Return.

When completing the form, you’ll need to provide your Social Security number or individual tax identification number, date of birth, and the mailing address from your latest tax return.

5 different transcript types

Transcripts will include basic summary information only. Depending on the information needed, you can select between one of five different transcript types:

  • Tax return transcript: This version provides the major line items from your tax return, including your adjusted gross income. It also provides summary information from any forms or schedules. It is commonly accepted by lenders and is available for the current tax year as well as the previous three years.
  • Tax account transcript: This version provides basic information, including return type, marital status, adjusted gross income, taxable income, and all payment types. It’s available for the current tax year and up to 10 previous tax years.
  • Record of account transcript: This version provides the tax return and tax account transcripts combined into one complete transcript. It’s available for the current tax year and the previous three years.
  • Wage and income transcript: This provides data from information returns, such as W-2s, 1099s, 1098s, and Form 5498 for IRA contribution information. It’s available for up to 10 previous years, as well as the most current tax year. Information may not be available until July for the current tax year.
  • Verification of non-filing letter: This version provides proof that the IRS has no record that you filed a tax return for the year in question. However, it won’t indicate if you’re required to file a return for that year. The transcript is available after June 15 for the most current tax year.

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How to get copies of tax returns

Even though tax transcripts are free of charge and can be delivered much more quickly than copies of your tax return(s), there may be times when you’ll want the full return rather than just the transcript. While lenders will accept the transcript, you may prefer having a full copy of your previous returns for your own records.

  • If so, you can request a copy of your tax return using IRS Form 4506, Request for a Copy of Tax Return. (This is not to be confused with the 4506-T mentioned above, which is a variation of Form 4506 specifically to request transcripts, but not tax returns.)
  • You can obtain copies of your tax returns for the current year and up to the six previous years. However, unlike tax transcripts, obtaining copies of your tax returns comes with a fee of $43 for each year requested.
  • If you’re filing the request by mail and plan to send a check, you’ll need to make your check payable to the United States Treasury. However, if you’re impacted by a federally declared disaster, the IRS will waive the fee if the copies are needed to apply for disaster relief benefits or to file amended returns claiming disaster-related losses.
  • For jointly filed returns, either spouse can request a copy. The signature for only the requesting spouse will be required on Form 4506.
  • Here’s a major reason why you should request tax transcripts, rather than copies of tax returns if you can possibly avoid it: It can take the IRS 75 days to provide copies of tax returns.
  • If you need your tax information in less time, transcripts will arrive in only a fraction of the time.

What is income tax refund-related fraud

Income tax refund-related fraud is a growing problem. It’s where a thief uses your information to file a tax return to claim a refund. The fraudulent return will contain your information, then direct the refund — which is grossly exaggerated — to a different bank account. The thief will usually file the return very early in the year, likely in February, to claim the refund before you file your legitimate return.

If that happens, you can also request a copy of the fraudulent return. To do that, you’ll use IRS Form 4506-F, Request for Copy of a Fraudulent Tax Return.

The IRS will work with you to resolve the fraudulent filing, and you won’t forfeit any refund you’re legitimately entitled to. But it may help to obtain a copy of the fraudulently filed return to reconstruct what happened.

The bottom line

Most taxpayers keep copies of tax returns for at least the past few years. But it is possible they can be lost in a move, a fire, a flood, or even a theft.

In most cases, where a tax return is needed, tax transcripts will get the job done. Transcripts may not be copies of your actual tax returns, but they contain all the relevant information a lender is looking for (as well as proof of filing). They’re free of charge, and you can get them in just a few days if you make the request online.

But if you believe, for any reason, that you’ll need copies of your returns instead, there is both a fee and a long wait time. That being the case, the best strategy may be to order a copy of your return(s) as soon as you become aware you don’t have one yourself.

That will give you an opportunity to get a copy of the return before it’s actually needed. After all, if tax returns will be required for a loan, a business transaction, or any other purpose, the other party may not be willing to wait 75 days for you to get copies. By ordering them when you don’t have an immediate need, you’ll have them available when you do.


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About the Author

Kevin Mercadante

Kevin Mercadante

Freelance Contributor

Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog,

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The content provided on Moneywise is information to help users become financially literate. It is neither tax nor legal advice, is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. Tax, investment and all other decisions should be made, as appropriate, only with guidance from a qualified professional. We make no representation or warranty of any kind, either express or implied, with respect to the data provided, the timeliness thereof, the results to be obtained by the use thereof or any other matter.