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How (and Why) to File Taxes for a Previous Year

Few business owners enjoy dealing with taxes. Tax law is complex, and you might think the time spent managing taxes could be better spent growing the business and making money. So it’s not hard to understand how some administrative tasks, like keeping up with bookkeeping and filing tax returns, get bumped to the sidelines.

While it may be tempting to keep putting these tasks off, filing and paying taxes isn’t something you want to ignore. IRS penalties and interest can add up fast, and the IRS has collection powers that other creditors just don’t have.

If you’re worried about how to file a previous year’s taxes, getting caught up might not be as daunting as you think. Often, the hardest step is just getting started, and we’re here to help you do just that.

How do I file a previous year’s taxes?

Filing a previous year’s tax return is a lot like filing an on-time return, with a few key differences. Here are the steps you need to take.

Step 1: Gather your tax documents

Before you get started, gather all relevant documents and records for the tax year in question. This may include:

If you don’t have financial statements because your bookkeeping isn’t up to date, Bench can help you get caught up. We can record and categorize all transactions from your receipts, invoices, bank statements, and credit cards; reconcile your bank accounts; and produce financial statements.

If you’re missing information, such as W-2s, 1099s, and other tax forms, you can request a wage and income transcript from the IRS. This transcript shows all of the information reported to the IRS on your behalf for that tax year.

Step 2: Complete the right tax forms

IRS forms change from year to year, so you need to make sure you use the forms for the tax year you need to file. If you use online tax software to file a return, make sure you select the correct year in the software.

If you’re filing without the help of software, you can download prior-year forms and instructions for completing those forms at IRS.gov.

You can also work with a professional tax preparer if you don’t feel comfortable filling out the forms on your own.

Step 3: Mail or electronically file your completed return

If you use online tax software or work with a tax professional, you may be able to file a late tax return electronically. The IRS’s Modernized e-File (MeF) system allows authorized e-file providers to e-file returns for the current year and two previous tax years. Just keep in mind that e-filing isn’t available during the IRS’s annual maintenance period, which runs from late November until mid-January each year.

If you can’t e-file back tax returns, you’ll need to mail them to the IRS. Print out the forms and mail them to the address listed in the form’s instructions. Mailing addresses can also change from time to time, so be sure you get the address from the instructions for the right tax year.

Step 4: Pay the tax due (or get your tax refund)

You can pay the tax you owe (plus penalties and interest) via the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), IRS Direct Pay, or by mailing a check with your return. You can also request an IRS payment plan if you can’t afford to pay the balance due.

File your return sooner rather than later if you’re expecting a refund instead of a tax bill. In most cases, you only have three years from the original due date of your return to file a return and claim your refund. If you file after that three-year window closes, the IRS won’t issue a refund or apply any overpayments to another tax year.

As long as you file within that window, the IRS should issue your refund via check or direct deposit. Direct deposit is always the fastest way to get a refund, but you can ask the IRS to apply your refund to the following tax year if you expect to owe money down the road.

Why do I need to file taxes from previous years?

For most people, filing back taxes isn’t optional—it’s required by law. While some people don’t have to file tax returns because they didn’t make enough money, most do. In fact, the threshold for filing for self-employed workers is lower than most since you have to file a return if you have self-employment income of $400 or more.

If you’re not sure whether you need to file, check out the IRS’s Do I Need to File a Tax Return? interactive tool.

Other reasons you may need to get caught up on your tax filing obligations include:

Limiting IRS penalties and interest

The IRS charges interest and penalties from the date your taxes were due until you pay them, so filing and paying the tax you owe limits the amount you’ll have to pay.

Getting approved for a loan

Lenders may require you to file past-due returns before approving your mortgage or business loan application.

Avoiding criminal penalties

Under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) 7201, willful evasion of taxes is punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. While the IRS generally won’t go after you for criminal tax evasion if you simply got behind on your tax filing due to a death in the family, illness, or another circumstance beyond your control, they aren’t as lenient if you simply avoided filing to get out of paying the amount you owe.

Starting the statute of limitations

The IRS generally has three years from the date you file your return to audit your return and assess additional taxes. However, that statute of limitations doesn’t start until you file your return.

Filing your tax return starts the clock, so you don’t have to worry about the IRS asking questions about your return five, 10, or 15 years down the line.

Keeping your passport

If you have seriously delinquent tax debt, the IRS can alert the State Department. When this happens, the State Department can deny your passport application or revoke your current passport. Filing your returns and paying the tax you owe ensures you get to hold on to your passport.

Avoiding tax levies and liens

The federal government has more collection tools than the average creditor. If you neglect your tax liability and ignore the IRS’s attempts to make payment arrangements, the IRS can place a levy or lien on your assets.

A levy is a legal seizing of your property to settle a debt. The IRS can levy your bank accounts, financial accounts, paycheck, vehicles, real estate, and other property. A lien is a legal document alerting other creditors that the IRS has a claim against your property. The IRS can place a lien on your home or other real estate, making it hard to sell or refinance the property.

What happens if I don’t file?

If you don’t file a tax return, the IRS may file one for you. That might sound convenient, but an IRS-filed return likely won’t work out in your favor.

When the IRS files for you, it’s known as a Substitute for Return (SFR). The problem with an SFR is that the IRS uses the information it has available, which is primarily related to your income, such as W-2s and 1099s. The IRS typically doesn’t have information about deductible business expenses, charitable donations, and other tax write-offs, so those aren’t included on your SFR.

As a result, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll owe more with an SFR than you would if you filed a return that includes all of your available deductions and tax credits.

Plus, the longer you go without filing, the more your interest and penalties will pile up. Those penalties can include:

  • Failure to File Penalty. This penalty is 5% of your unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month that your return is late, capped at 25% of your unpaid balance.

  • Failure to Pay Penalty. This penalty is 0.5% of your unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month that your tax liability remains unpaid. If both the Failure to File and Failure to Pay penalties apply to the same month, the IRS will apply a combined penalty of 5%.

If your tax return is more than 60 days late, the minimum Failure to File Penalty is $435, or 100% of the tax due, whichever is less.

Keep in mind that the IRS also charges interest on those penalties, so the higher your penalties, the higher your interest will be as well.

Further reading: What Happens If You Don’t File Taxes For Your Business

What happens if I can’t pay?

Don’t let the fact that you can’t afford to pay your tax bill keep you from filing your tax return. The IRS has several options that can make getting caught up on your back taxes affordable, including:

Penalty waivers

The IRS considers waiving penalties for two reasons:

  • Reasonable cause. If you didn’t file on time due to extenuating circumstances, such as a fire or natural disaster, death of an immediate family member, or illness, the IRS may agree to waive penalties.

  • First-time penalties. If you’re normally on top of your tax filing responsibilities and just fell behind this year, the IRS may grant you the one-time courtesy of removing your penalties.

To ask the IRS to waive your penalties, call them at 1-800-829-1040 or the phone number on your IRS bill if you have one. The IRS doesn’t waive interest, but getting penalties waived can drastically cut the amount you have to pay.

Payment plans

The IRS offers two types of payment plans that can make paying your back taxes more affordable.

  • Short-term payment plan. If you can pay the amount you owe within 180 days, the IRS doesn’t charge a setup fee for a short-term payment plan. You can pay the amount you owe via IRS Direct Pay or by check, money order, debit, or credit card.

  • Long-term payment plan. If you need more time to pay, you can request a long-term payment plan. For this type of plan, you tell the IRS how much you can afford to pay each month and the IRS either approves or denies your request. The IRS charges a setup fee ranging from $31 to $130, depending on whether you agree to have monthly installments deducted automatically from your checking account or pay via another method.

You can apply for an installment agreement online or by calling the IRS at the number shown above.

Offer in compromise

An offer in compromise (OIC) is an option the IRS provides to people who can’t pay their tax debt without causing themselves economic hardship. With an OIC, the IRS agrees to settle your debt for less than the full balance due. But this option isn’t available to everyone.

To apply for an OIC, you have to meet specific eligibility requirements, complete an application, pay an application fee, and submit documents proving the assets, debts, and income shown on your application. You can find instructions for applying for an OIC in the Form 656 Booklet.

Completing the OIC application and negotiating the offer amount with the IRS is complicated, so it’s best to get help from an experienced tax professional.

How Bench can help

One of the main reasons small business owners fall behind on filing and paying their taxes is because their bookkeeping isn’t up to date. If that’s you, then bookkeeping is also the first place you should start in getting back on track with the IRS.

That’s where Bench comes in. Our team of bookkeeping specialists helps you get caught up on your accounting and generate the financial statements you need to file back tax returns. If you need help filing, our tax team can also provide tax preparation and filing from start to finish.

Plus, as a Bench client, you get access to a network of partners who can help you set up a payment plan or negotiate your balance with the IRS.

The IRS takes taxes seriously, and so should you. Get ahead of the problem by getting caught up on your bookkeeping so you can file your taxes and avoid dreaded IRS penalties. Book a free call to speak with us and learn how Bench can help you get back on track.

What's Bench?

We're an online bookkeeping service powered by real humans. Bench gives you a dedicated bookkeeper supported by a team of knowledgeable small business experts. We’re here to take the guesswork out of running your own business—for good. Your bookkeeping team imports bank statements, categorizes transactions, and prepares financial statements every month. Get started with a free month of bookkeeping.


This post is to be used for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal, business, or tax advice. Each person should consult his or her own attorney, business advisor, or tax advisor with respect to matters referenced in this post. Bench assumes no liability for actions taken in reliance upon the information contained herein.

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