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Can I get a copy of my old 1994 tax return?

I got a text the other day from a client asking if I could pull a copy of his 1994 tax return. My first gut reaction was, “Why on earth would you need it?” I learned a long time ago not to ask ‘why’ unless there is a good reason. Maybe it was the last year he was married? Maybe he’s just curious how much money he made then? I have no idea. I didn’t ask. People have reasons.

However, I did give the following answer: The IRS keeps your tax return for 3 to 6 years after the tax is paid, then destroys it. (Most of the time.)

So, what CAN you get from the IRS and when?

You can get a copy of most of the information on your tax return, line-by-line, for about 3 years back (Tax return transcript).

 – You can get the underlying information that they received from others for 10 years back. (Wage and Income Transcript) This is the information from your W2s, 1099s, mortgage interest, retirement plans, etc. that you get in the mail every January to use to do your taxes.

– You can get a copy of your tax bill and adjustments for 20 years in many cases. (Account Transcript) This shows your total income, when you filed your return, how much was owed, how much was paid, any refunds or any balance due. It does not show what was on your return.


But if it’s all digital now, why can’t they just keep it all?

Well… They have hundreds of thousands of tax returns every year and that is a lot of data to protect. They keep your original information if amended returns  were filed (you went back and made changes), if you are being examined (audited), if there was a problem with some of the underlying information on the return (for example, if your employer went back and changed your W2), if fraud is suspected, or other situations like that. If there is no underlying situation and the tax is paid, it is likely they will delete your tax return (line-by-line numbers) 3 years after you filed it.


But what if I need an old tax return?

First, tax returns are something YOU need to keep forever. This is one of those key “adulting” things. Find a safe place for your documents. Buy a safe. Keep them at your mom’s. Get a safety deposit box at the bank. Buy a scanner and use free cloud storage. Find a safe place to keep your records. Somethings should be kept throughout your life.

Second, go back to how you filed your taxes. If you filed online, maybe you saved the forms in an email or can download them securely. If you used an accountant or tax prep service, they might still have your files.  However, they are only required to keep it for 3 years after it’s filed. If your accountant can pull up your tax return and W2s from 10 years ago, you need to bring her a coffee.

Finally, you can request the information from the IRS, see what they have, and see if the return can be re-created. This can be difficult and doesn’t always work. Best bet is to keep your records from the beginning.


Like this post? Check out more from Grass Roots Taxes:

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