A month ago, I visited the IRS office in Manhattan to find out why I'd never received my 2010 refund, despite filing everything on time and sending it via Certified Mail.
"Looks like we don't have a record of 2010 ... or 2009," the clerk said, sneering.
I was aghast—what upstanding citizen blunders their tax return twice?
Panicked, I turned to tax attorney and blogger Kelly Phillips Erb, who had good news. "Whatever you think you did wrong, chances are someone did it much worse."
The woman's not kidding: She's made a living helping people file back taxes from decades ago. Here are her tips for doing it right:
Double-check that you filed the return. Call the IRS hotline or go online (http://www.irs.gov) to order a transcript of the return(s) in question. It's the only way to truly know where you stand, says Erb.
If you're unsure if you filed AND need to make changes: File a 1040 X (ammended return), says Erb. DO NOT file another 1040, which will send a red flag to the IRS that there are two copies of your return floating around, stalling the process. Even if the IRS says they don't have your original, you should still file the 1040 X because you're not sure, Erb adds.
If you know that you filed the 1040 but don't need to make changes: Send a duplicate return with a cover letter stating what happened to the return, what date it was originally sent and that the attached 1040 is a COPY. Clearly mark it as such (perhaps with a stamp) so the IRS doesn't get confused and flag it.
Consider hiring a tax preparer. "Having a tax pro does wonders for dealing with stress," Erb says. "(Taxpayers) carry baggage, but the preparer doesn't have that so she can concentrate on solving the problem."
Keep copies of everything. Goes without saying, but you should keep paper copies of everything you send to the IRS. File cabinet a mess? See what to keep, toss or shred during tax season here.
Owe money? Prepare to pay up. For those owing back taxes, there is a failure to file penalty, which is a percentage of the taxes due, Erb explains. "There will also be interest, which can add up pretty quickly depending on how much the taxes were."
Or act fast if the tax man owes you. You don't want to fall outside the statute of limitations (i.e., deadline) for receiving old tax refunds, says Erb. According to the IRS,
Don't sweat it too much. Unless you're a true tax evader à la the great Wesley Snipes, the IRS won't come after you. Says Erb: "People get worried about prison, but the IRS doesn't want to prosecute these cases, even if the taxpayer's being willful for silly reasons. That said, if there's a pattern of willfulness, you show no remorse and the IRS feels like you need to be taught a lesson, well, get ready to join Wesley Snipes."
Don't miss: 9 easy ways to spot a scammy tax preparer >
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