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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 submitting 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

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

Immediate Confirmation

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

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

Safety

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

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


There’s a lesser chance that the IRS will make a error when calculating your return because IRS employees do not need to manually put in 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 simple situation, and are willing to learn, you can fill tax forms in directly using 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 might be better off with one of the IRS’ many free-file affiliates.

E-filing comes with some potential headaches, too.

Fees

While there are tax preparation tools which are free, many of the leading 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.

Doesn’t Allow for Certain Filing Situations

Though e-filing supports most tax scenarios, there are certain scenarios it does not support.  For instance, you can’t file a return for somebody who passed away, you can not 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

For instance, 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 images or PDFs to supplement your own 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 on your behalf.

You may fill out each form line-by-line and see firsthand all the calculations and considerations your refund requires.

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

Increases Chances of Errors

Data transcribers at the IRS must manually enter taxpayer information for each paper return they get.  As a result of this, it could lead to errors that you might have to fix via an amended return.

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

You Will 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 entry when you file :

  1. Make sure that your name and Social Security number are on every 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, as the address can change depending 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 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 think you’ll owe anything.  Otherwise, you might 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 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 if you use one of 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 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. Web or website outages can cause frustrating delays for e-filers. 
    3. Paper filing requires more time than e-filing and can be overpowering. 
    4. Alternatives to filing taxes in your include hiring a tax pro or participating in filing assistance programs.