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Know the Pros and Cons of Digital and Paper Tax Returns

When you file your taxes, you have 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 Advantages of E-Filing

E-filing was first 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 however and, as of 2018, approximately 90% of taxpayers e-filed their yields.

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

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

Safety

E-filing is more secure than paper filing, according to the IRS, since 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 quicker because e-filing means the IRS does not need to sort or transcribe your tax return in its service center.


There is a lesser chance that the IRS will make a error when processing your return because IRS employees don’t have to manually enter your return line-by-line to 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 very simple situation, and are willing 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 guidance is provided.  And if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is less than $72,000, you may be better off using one of the IRS’ many free-file affiliates.

Fees

When there are tax preparation tools which are free, many of the top tax prep companies 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.  Additionally, your internet service provider may face outages that could hamper your submitting effort.

Does Not Allow for Certain Filing Situations

Though e-filing supports most tax scenarios, there are certain situations it doesn’t support.  For example, you can’t file a return for someone who passed away, you can’t attach images 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 helpful in some specific scenarios that e-filing can’t accommodate.

You’ve Got a Rare Filing Situation

By way of example, if you need to prepare a tax return for someone who passed away, you must file a paper return.  Also, paper filing allows you to print and submit pictures or PDFs to supplement your own tax return.

You Need to Build Your Tax Experience

Many online tax prep tools automate the filing process by asking you questions and using your replies to fill out forms without telling you which forms it’s filing on your behalf.

If you want to know 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 may fill out every form line-by-line and see first-hand all of the calculations and considerations your refund requires.

Disadvantages of Paper Filing

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 in the IRS must manually input taxpayer information for every paper return they get.  As a result of this, it might lead to errors that you may have to fix via an amended return.

Overwhelming for Beginners

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 mistakes.

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.

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’s important that you don’t make a mistake.

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

  4. Get an automatic extension if you’re 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 think you’ll owe anything.  Otherwise, you could be subject to interest and penalties.

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. There are specific requirements for e-filing or paper filing should you use these programs.

In the unlikely event that 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 case and mail it in with Form 14039, the”Identity Theft Affidavit,” notifying the IRS of this 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 may be overpowering. 
    4. Alternatives to filing taxes on your own include hiring a tax pro or participating in filing assistance programs.