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Know the Pros and Cons of Digital and Paper Tax Returns

When you file your taxes, you’ve got two options for submitting your return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS): electronically or by mail.

Both methods of filing have their pros and cons.  E-filing is safe, faster, and generally more convenient than paper filing, but filing by email can be cheaper, although it requires the IRS longer to process refunds.

The Benefits of E-Filing

E-filing was initially introduced in 1986, and it got off to a slow start. A scant number of tax professionals–five of them, according to the IRS–took advantage of this new technology at the moment.  The new filing method eventually caught on though and, as of 2018, approximately 90% of taxpayers e-filed their returns.

Immediate Confirmation

The biggest advantage of electronic filing is that you will receive almost immediate confirmation that the IRS has received your tax return.

If the IRS finds errors on your return, you will receive a rejection notice (usually within 24-48 hours), and the note will typically indicate what triggered the action and what you can do to fix your tax return.

Safety

E-filing is much more secure than paper filing, according to the IRS, because the return, with all your sensitive information, is transmitted directly to the IRS computer system.

Faster Processing

Your refund is very likely to be processed faster because e-filing means the IRS doesn’t have to sort or transcribe your tax return at its service center.

Less Human Error


There is a lower chance that the IRS will make a error when calculating your return because IRS employees do not have to manually enter your return line-by-line into its system.

You Don’t Have to Use a Tax Prep Program

You don’t have to use an expensive tax preparation program to e-file your taxes–if you’re tax savvy, have a very simple situation, and are prepared to learn, you can fill tax forms in directly with IRS free fillable forms.  Be aware that you need to be comfortable completing basic tax forms to use the service as no advice is provided.  And if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is less than $72,000, you may be better off with one of the IRS’ many free-file affiliates.

The Disadvantages of E-Filing

Fees

When there are tax preparation tools which are free, many of the top tax prep firms like TurboTax, TaxSlayer, and H&R Block charge fees for tax returns that go beyond a simple filing.  Fees can exceed $100, depending on which type of features you want.

Vulnerable to Outages

Glitches are always possible once you’re using the net.  In 2020, TurboTax’s site experienced at least seven outages between April 15 and April 17.  Also, your internet service provider may face outages that could hamper your submitting attempt.

Does Not Allow for Certain Filing Situations

Though e-filing supports most tax scenarios, there are certain situations it doesn’t support.  By way of example, you can’t file a return for someone who passed away, you can’t attach pictures or PDFs to your return, nor can you record before the IRS opens e-filing for the year.

Advantages of Paper Filing

Filing a paper return can be very helpful in certain scenarios that e-filing can’t accommodate.

You Have a Rare Filing Situation

For instance, if you need to prepare a tax return for somebody who passed away, you must file a paper return.  Also, paper filing lets you print and submit pictures or PDFs to supplement your tax return.

You Want to Build Your Tax Expertise

Several online tax prep tools automate the filing process by asking you questions and using your replies to complete forms without ever telling you which forms it’s filing for your benefit.

You can fill out every form line-by-line and see firsthand all the calculations and factors your refund requires.

There are lots of drawbacks to paper filing that make the procedure riskier and more taxing than e-filing.

Increases Odds of Errors

Data transcribers in the IRS must manually enter taxpayer information for each paper return they receive.  Because of this, it could lead to errors that you might have to fix through an amended return.

For filers who attempt paper filing after years of electronic filing, collecting all the forms necessary for things like student loan interest, mortgage interest, capital gains, and business deductions can be intimidating, and it could result in missing forms or errors.

You Need to Remember to Sign the Return

Veteran paper filers realize that you have to manually sign the paper return you submit, or the IRS won’t accept it.  Newbie paper filers often forget this fact, leading to even longer delays than what you’d normally expect with a paper return.

You can do a few things to streamline your return entry when you file by paper:

  1. Make sure your name and Social Security number are on every page, both front and back. 
  2. Double-check your address. This is where the IRS will send any notices, so it’s vital that you don’t make a mistake.

  3. Mail your return to the perfect IRS service center, as the address can change based on which state you’re in, and whether you are including payment with your return.  The IRS provides a state-by-state list online so that you can find the right address.

  4. Get an automatic extension if you are mailing your return near the official filing deadline of April 15, 2021.  Bear in mind that you should make a payment with your extension if you believe you’ll owe anything.  Otherwise, you could be subject to penalties and interest.

The IRS provides a list of acceptable filing options on its own website, which include the following options:

  1.             Hire a tax professional to prepare your own return. 
  2. Use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, or the Tax Counseling for the Elderly program, if you are eligible. There are specific requirements for e-filing or paper filing should you use one of these programs.

In the unlikely event that your identity is stolen and the thief files a tax return with your data, your e-filed return will be rejected by the IRS as a copy.  You have to file a paper tax return in this case and mail it in with Form 14039, the”Identity Theft Affidavit,” notifying the IRS of the matter.

Key Takeaways

    1. E-filing is fast and provides several free options
    2. Internet or website outages can cause frustrating delays for e-filers. 
    3. Paper filing requires more time than e-filing and can be overwhelming. 
    4. Alternatives to filing taxes on your own include hiring a tax professional or participating in filing assistance programs.