Your banker is set to approve your loan as soon as he gets copies of your last few tax returns. There’s just one problem. You can’t find them.

While there’s no reason to go overboard in your tax record keeping, sometimes you do need old paperwork. Loan officers usually want copies of past returns to verify your financial situation and income sources. Your filings can help you track IRA contributions or verify that your Social Security payroll taxes were properly paid.

And what if you discover you overlooked a tax break that would have netted you a bigger return? You need your original 1040 before you can file a corrected return and collect your money.

If you never kept copies, lost them in a move or, worst-case scenario, they were destroyed in a disaster (which itself could be a reason you need old tax documents), there are several ways to get your hands on the information.

2 choices when requesting tax records
  • Form 4506-T will get you a transcript of your tax filings for specified years. This is a synopsis that shows most line items from your original individual tax returns. There is no charge for transcripts.
  • Form 4506 will get you a photocopy of your tax return, along with copies of the accompanying documents you sent with your 1040. You must pay for this service.

Just the facts, ma’am

If you need minimal data or a quick confirmation of your filing information, ask the Internal Revenue Service to send you a transcript. All you have to do if file Form 4506-T, Request for Transcript of Tax Return. The process is relatively fast, easy and free.

Form 4506-T gives you two choices: a return transcript or an account transcript.

A tax return transcript is not a copy of your actual return, but a synopsis that shows most line items from your original individual tax filing, be it Form 1040, 1040EZ or 1040A. You also can get a tax transcript if you filed various corporate returns (such as the 1120 series of forms or Form 1065). A return transcript also will provide information on any other forms and schedules that accompanied your filing.

If you amended your filing, however, any changes you subsequently made won’t show up on a return transcript. In this case, you’ll need to get an account transcript.

A tax account transcript shows any later adjustments to your taxes after the return was filed. This includes payments made, penalty assessments and adjustments, made either by you or the IRS. This transcript also shows basic data, including marital status, type of return filed, adjusted gross income and taxable income. Account transcripts are available for most types of returns.

In many cases, a transcript meets the requirements of the lending institution, including guidelines established by the Small Business Administration or Department of Education for processing mortgages, student loans or other financing requests. Transcripts also may be acceptable to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Both return and account transcripts are readily available for the year a return is filed and for returns processed during the preceding three years. If your request falls within this time frame, your condensed tax information will be sent to you in 10 to 14 days. But if you want data from a return filed more than four years ago, it could take up to a month for your request to be filled.

The wait is made a bit easier, however, when you consider that there is no charge (aside from the cost of your stamp) for tax transcripts.

The whole enchilada

Where more complete tax data is needed, file Form 4506, Request for a Copy of Tax Return.

This will get you a photocopy of your tax return, along with copies of the accompanying documents you sent with your 1040. This includes W-2s, schedules and other tax forms that were part of that filing.

This is not a request to make if you’re in a hurry.

The IRS says it can take up to 60 days for the agency to find this data and get copies back to you. And don’t ask the IRS for a reproduction of your current return that you just filed but forgot to copy. The agency says wait six weeks after filing your return before you ask for a copy.

A complete photocopy of one old tax return will cost you $39. If you request multiple copies for several years on the same Form 4506 (you can ask for up to four), that will be $39 for each tax period sought.

Although costly, this information is the most complete and is what you’ll need for lenders or other agencies that demand full tax disclosure. You also can ask, by checking the box at the end of line 6, that the IRS send you certified copies that will meet court or other administrative proceeding requirements.

You may, however, run into some problems if you’re seeking copies of really old forms. The IRS apparently follows its recommendations on how long to keep records. The agency cautions that returns filed seven or more years ago may not be available for photocopying. By law, the agency must destroy this older data. But, says the IRS, your tax account information generally is still available for prior years and you can get the data in an alternate format.

Employment data confirmation

Have you misplaced old employment tax information? Forms 4506 and 4506-T can help you get your hands on your old W-2 data.

By paying for a full return copy via Form 4506, you’ll also get reproductions of the income substantiation material submitted with the return. But if you simply need the income numbers and not the actual paperwork, a transcript is more cost-effective.

Form 4506-T gives you the option of getting transcript information from any W-2 (wage), 1098 (mortgage interest) or 5498 (IRA contributions) form associated with your tax filing. This information is available in many cases for up to 10 years. In transcript format, however, the data will be for federal payments only. State withholding information is not part of the IRS transcript database. If you need state data, request a full copy and pay the $39 fee.

And don’t use this form to get a W-2 copy so that you can file your current tax return. Information for the current year is generally not available until the year after it is filed with the IRS. For example, your W-2 earnings information for 2007, filed by your employer in 2008, will not be available from the IRS until 2009.

To get W-2 data for tax-filing purposes, your best first step is to ask your boss for another copy. If that doesn’t work and your tax-filing could be delayed because your employer just won’t send you the wage statement, file Form 4852, Substitute for Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement. If you need W-2 information for retirement purposes, contact the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213.

News on not filing

Form 4506-T also can be used to verify that you did not file any tax return.

Bankrate’s tax expert George Saenz notes that nonfiling confirmation may be required if you seek assistance from a program with income eligibility limits. This could be the case, for example, in student financial aid applications. IRS corroboration that you did not file a return could help prove that you did not make enough taxable income for Uncle Sam to require a 1040.

Eva Rosenberg, an enrolled agent based in Southern California, cites some other reasons you may want IRS authentication that you didn’t file a return:

  1. You know you didn’t file and want to make sure that no one else filed in your name.
  2. You know that you didn’t need to file and wanted some objective confirmation.
  3. You’re not sure if you (or the person whose finances you’re managing) filed a return for that year.
  4. You believe you filed and want to verify that IRS did or did not receive it.

Requesting a transcript for the tax year in question (line 6 of Form 4506-T) will get you quick — and free — proof of your nonfiling.

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