5 times when you may have to paper file a tax return

Couple sitting in their kitchen, going over taxesImage: Couple sitting in their kitchen, going over taxes

In a Nutshell

About 90% of taxpayers e-file, according to the IRS. E-filing can be fast, secure and convenient — and you can also receive quick confirmation that the IRS has accepted (or rejected) your return. But what about times when the IRS requires you to paper file a tax return? Here are instances when that could be the case.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and Jennifer Samuel, senior product specialist for Credit Karma.

Electronic filing has many advantages — such as speed, convenience and security — but there may still be times when the IRS requires you to paper file a tax return.

Another benefit of e-filing: You can get a tax refund sooner. The IRS says you can usually receive your refund within three weeks (or less) from the time they IRS receives your return if you have your refund directly deposited into your financial account. A paper return can take up to two months to process.

Whether you prefer the advantages of e-file or like the traditional route of filing a paper return, there are certain situations in which you may not have a choice. Let’s look at five scenarios for when the IRS could require you to file a paper return.

When you have to paper file a tax return

Although the IRS urges taxpayers to e-file whenever possible, there are also times when the service requires taxpayers to mail in a paper return and other tax forms.

1. You missed the e-filing deadline — and can’t wait

Typically, your federal income tax return is due on April 15 (or thereabouts) every year. You can usually get a filing extension to Oct. 15, although that’s not an extension of time in which to pay your taxes. Any tax you owe is still due Tax Day.

You can e-file a return at any time of year — except when the IRS shuts down its Modernized e-File system , or MeF, to prepare for the next year’s tax filing season. Last year, the shutdown deadline was Nov. 17.

If you absolutely can’t wait until the IRS begins accepting e-filed individual tax returns (usually in late January of the following year) again, you might have to file a paper return.

2. You need to file an amended return

There are many reasons why you might need to file an amended tax return, but there’s only one way to do it:  You’ll have to mail a paper Form 1040X to the IRS.

Even if you use an online tax preparation and filing service  to complete the 1040X, you’ll still need to print and mail it.

3. You’re seeking relief as an injured spouse

If your spouse owes certain kinds of debt — such as past-due taxes, state debts, unpaid student loans or late child support payments — and you file a joint federal tax return, the U.S. Department of the Treasury might be able to take some or all of your joint refund to pay that debt. Requesting injured spouse relief could help you keep the portion of your shared refund that is yours, while your spouse’s share goes toward paying their debts.

To apply for injured spouse relief you must complete and submit Form 8379. If you submit the form at the same time you file your joint return, you can e-file both together. However, if you already filed your federal return and it was accepted (for example, you discovered the IRS might take your refund after you filed), you’ll have to mail it.  And if you’re submitting it with an amended tax return, both must be filed on paper.

4. Your e-filed return keeps getting rejected

Returns can be rejected for many reasons. If it’s something minor, like a misspelled name or a missing form, you may be able to correct your return by resubmitting your e-filed return.

But you may have to file your return by mail if the IRS rejects your return for a bigger problem — such as someone else using your Social Security number or if someone on your return has already been claimed as a dependent on another already-processed return.

5. Taxpayers who live or work outside the U.S.

If you are a U.S. citizen or resident alien who lives or works outside the United States, you will have to mail your return.

If you expect a refund or aren’t including a payment with the return, you can mail it to:

Department of the Treasury
Internal Revenue Service Center
Austin, TX 73301-0215

If you’re sending a payment, mail the return and your check or money order to:

Internal Revenue Service
P.O. Box 1303
Charlotte, NC 28201-1303

How to file a paper tax return

In many ways, preparing a paper return is very similar to preparing an electronic one. The information you’ll need to fill in is the same, and the IRS rules for deductions, credits and other tax breaks are the same, too.

You may even be able to use tax software or a filing service that does calculations for you to prepare your return and then print it out afterward.

Filing a successful paper return requires you to take special care that your return is error-free and meets the requirements specified by the IRS. Here are some tips that can help you file your paper return.

  • Make sure you have names, addresses and Social Security numbers correct on all forms and for everyone named on the forms.
  • Check your data entry and double-check your math.
  • Remember to attach copies of your W-2s or any other income statements, required forms or documentation that should be included with your return.
  • Be sure to sign and date your return. If you are married filing jointly, make sure both spouses have signed and dated the return. The IRS won’t consider your return valid without the required signatures.

If you’re expecting a refund and want it directly deposited into your bank account (remember, the IRS says that’s the fastest way to get your refund), write your direct deposit information on the specified line of your 1040.

Fill out your 1040 and any accompanying forms by following the instructions for each form, attach a copy of your W-2, other required income statements and forms, and place everything in an envelope. If you’re not sure where to send your paper return, you can look up mailing addresses for your state online.

Bottom line

If you’re required to paper file a tax return, don’t be intimidated. Remember, before 1986, when the IRS began allowing taxpayers to electronically file their returns, everyone completed and mailed paper returns.

Successfully paper filing a tax return can be just as easy as e-filing. Just be sure to follow the instructions with your Form 1040, 1040X or other necessary paper form, double-check your data entry and math, and be sure to mail everything on time to the correct IRS office with the right amount of postage.

Jennifer Samuel, senior tax product specialist for Credit Karma, has more than a decade of experience in the tax preparation industry, including work as a tax analyst and tax preparation professional. She holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Saint Leo University. You can find her on LinkedIn.

About the author: Trina Hargrove has managed tax, consulting and payroll accounting businesses for more than a decade. A seasoned tax professional, she’s performed individual and corporate tax preparation of both state and federal retu… Read more.