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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 submitting have their advantages and disadvantages.  E-filing is safe, faster, and more convenient than paper filing, but filing by email can be cheaper, though 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 however and, as of 2018, approximately 90% of taxpayers e-filed their returns.

Immediate Confirmation

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 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 repair your tax return.

Safety

E-filing is much more secure than paper filing, according to the IRS, because the return, together 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 does not have to sort or transcribe your tax return in its service center.

Less Human Error


There is a lesser chance that the IRS will make a error when processing your return because IRS employees don’t need to manually put in your return line-by-line into its system.

You Don’t Have to Use a Tax Prep Program

You don’t need 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 using IRS free fillable forms.  Be aware that you should 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 might be better off using one of the IRS’ many free-file affiliates.

The Disadvantages of E-Filing

E-filing comes with some potential headaches, too.

Fees

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

Vulnerable to Outages

Glitches are always possible when 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 attempt.

Does Not Allow for Certain Filing Situations

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

Advantages of Paper Filing

Filing a paper return can be very beneficial in certain scenarios that e-filing cannot accommodate.

You Have a Rare Filing Situation

E-filing can only do so much. For instance, if you will need to prepare a tax return for someone who passed away, you have to file a paper return.  Also, paper filing lets you print and submit images or PDFs to supplement your own tax return.

You Want to Build Your Tax Expertise

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 for your benefit.

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

Disadvantages of Paper Filing

There are several drawbacks to paper filing which make the procedure riskier and more taxing than e-filing.

Increases Odds of Errors

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

For filers who try paper filing after years of electronic filing, gathering all 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, 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 that your name and Social Security number are on every page, both back and front. 
  2. Double-check your address. This is where the IRS will send any notices, so it is 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’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 right address.

  4. Get an automatic extension if you’re mailing your return close to the official filing deadline of April 15, 2021.  Keep in mind that you ought to make a payment with your extension if you think you’ll owe anything.  Otherwise, you could 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. There are particular requirements for e-filing or paper filing if 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 duplicate.  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 this issue.

Key Takeaways

    1. E-filing is quickly 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 engaging in filing assistance programs.