Going Postal: Proving You Filed Your Tax Returns On Time

Recently we were alerted by one of our clients that, after waiting in line at the post office, he was unable to get a date stamp from the postal clerk on the tax returns he was posting for mail.  Another client informed us that after waiting in line at the airport post office to drop off her tax returns in the “big blue bag” she was informed by the postal workers that even though she was dropping the returns off before midnight, they could not guarantee that the returns would be date stamped for that day, because there were so many returns, they weren’t sure if they would “get to them.” 

After much investigation, we learned that different things happen to different people depending on which post office you visit.  The USPS still offers “hand canceling” of mail, but apparently only if they are not busy and/or are in a good mood that day.  By obtaining the hand canceled date stamp on your tax return envelope, you might be able to meet one of the IRS’ criteria for proving timely filing of a tax return:  the postmark date on the envelope (assuming the envelope is saved by IRS).  The only other methods accepted by IRS are certified mail and registered mail, more expensive and more of a hassle for most people, but necessary in some cases.

While the advent of e-filing has eliminated this issue for most taxpayers, there are still occasions when one must file a paper return.  Late filing penalties are not an issue if you are filing an individual return and don’t owe any taxes.  However, if you do owe taxes and the IRS determines that you have filed late, you are on the hook for a minimum 5% penalty for each month the return is late, up to a total of 25%.  In addition, you will incur late payment penalties and interest.  So, proof of timely filing a tax return can be critical if you owe taxes.  And, S corporations and partnerships now have substantial penalties for late filing, depending on the number of K-1’s per return ($195 per month times the number of K-1s, up to 12 months total – ouch!).

In addition, you need proof of timely filing if you are close to the end of a statute of limitations period, as in the case of filing amended tax returns.  In this case, we always recommend using certified or registered mail as there could be significant tax or refund issues that necessitate proof of timely filing.  Also, if you file your returns more than 2 years after they are due, but are expecting refunds, you will forfeit those refunds, so any late filed returns within the 2 year statute should be sent certified or registered to prove that you have the right to receive your refunds.

So, if you don’t live near a rural post office, with happy-go-lucky postal employees, you should plan on using certified or registered mail for any documents where proof of the mailing date is critical.

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