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Should You E-File or File Taxes by Mail?

Know the Pros and Cons of Digital and Paper Tax Returns

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

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

The Advantages of E-Filing

A scant number of tax professionals–five of them, according to the IRS–took advantage of the new technology at the time.  The new filing method eventually caught on though and, as of 2018, approximately 90% of taxpayers e-filed their returns.

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

If the IRS finds errors on your return, you will be given 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, since the return, together with all of your sensitive information, is transmitted directly to the IRS computer system.

Your refund is likely to be processed quicker 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 don’t need to manually enter your return line-by-line into its own system.

You Don’t Have to Use a Tax Prep Program

You don’t need to use a costly tax preparation program to e-file your taxes–if you are tax savvy, have a simple situation, and are prepared to understand, you can fill tax forms in directly with IRS free fillable forms.  Be aware that you should 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 might be better off with one of the IRS’ many free-file affiliates.

Fees

When there are tax prep tools that 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 basic filing.  Fees can exceed $100, depending on which type of features you desire.

Vulnerable to Outages

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

Does Not Allow for Certain Filing Situations

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

Benefits of Paper Filing

Filing a paper return can be very beneficial in some specific scenarios that e-filing can’t accommodate.

You Have a Rare Filing Situation

E-filing can only do so much. For example, if you will need to prepare a tax return for somebody who passed away, you must file a paper return.  Also, paper filing allows you to print and submit images or PDFs to supplement your tax return.

You Need to Build Your Tax Experience

Several online tax prep tools automate the filing process by asking you questions and using your answers to complete forms without telling you which forms it’s filing on your behalf.

If you want to learn about, and better review, the details of your tax return, including all forms related to your tax situation, filing a paper return provides the transparency that you crave. 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 process riskier and more taxing than e-filing.

Increases Odds of Errors

Data transcribers at the IRS must manually input taxpayer information for every paper return they get.  Because of this, it might result in errors that you may need to fix via an amended return.

For filers who attempt paper filing after years of electronic filing, collecting all of the forms necessary for things like student loan interest, mortgage interest, capital gains, and business deductions can be intimidating, and it might lead to 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, resulting in even longer delays than what you’d normally expect with a paper return.

Tips for Paper Filing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Takeaways

    1. E-filing is quickly and provides several free options
    2. Internet or site outages can cause frustrating delays for e-filers. 
    3. Paper filing requires more time than e-filing and may be overpowering. 
    4. Alternatives to filing taxes on your own include hiring a tax pro or engaging in filing aid programs.