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Tax transcript types and why you might need one to file your tax return

IRS electronic tax filing

Prior year tax returns serve many purposes.

This filing season, a check of last year's return will show you what your tax liability for 2017 was. You can compare that to your final 2018 tax bill to see if the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) did indeed lower your taxes even though your refund this year was smaller.

You'll also need past year tax data if you're applying for a major loan, such as a mortgage.

And if you're electronically filing your tax return this year, you'll need data from your previous year's taxes to complete that task.

Record keeping, however, has never been your strong suit. So what do you do?

The Internal Revenue Service's Get Transcript services can help.

Types of transcripts: A tax transcript isn't a copy of your prior filings. Rather, it generally summarizes your tax return or other tax-related information.

The IRS actually offers taxpayers five types of transcripts:

  • Tax Return Transcript — This shows most line items from your return, including your adjusted gross income (AGI) from the original tax return (Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ for tax years prior to 2018) you filed. Information also is provided from any forms and schedules you filed along with your 1040. A tax return transcript, however, doesn't show changes made after you filed your original return. This transcript is only available for the current tax year and returns processed during the prior three years. It usually meets the needs of lending institutions offering mortgages and student loans.
  • Tax Account Transcript — This transcript shows basic data such as return type, marital status, adjusted gross income, taxable income and all payment types. It also shows changes made after you filed your original return. You can download a tax account transcript for the current tax year and up to 10 prior years. If, however, you want a copy of this type of transcript mailed to you, you're limited to the current tax year and returns processed during the prior three years.
  • Record of Account Transcript — This version combines the tax return and tax account transcripts into one complete transcript. This transcript is available for the current tax year and returns processed during the prior three years using Get Transcript Online or by submitting Form 4506-T.
  • Wage and Income Transcript — This shows data from information returns sent to the IRS, such as Forms W-2, 1099, 1098 and Form 5498, IRA Contribution Information. Current tax year information may not be complete until July. This transcript is available for up to 10 prior years using Get Transcript Online or Form 4506-T.
  • Verification of Non-filing Letter — This document provides proof that the IRS has no record of a filed Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ for the year you requested. It doesn't indicate whether you were required to file a return for that year. This letter is available after June 15 for the current tax year or anytime for the prior three tax years using Get Transcript Online or Form 4506-T. You must use Form 4506-T if you need a letter for tax years older than the prior three years.

There is no charge for whatever type of transcript you request and they are available for the most current tax year after the IRS has processed the return.

Getting your transcripts online: All transcript types are available online, but the tax return transcript is sufficient for most taxpayer needs.

As noted in the synopses of the various tax transcript types, you can get these filing summaries by downloading the data through a special site at IRS.gov or by requesting your transcripts be sent to you by U.S. Postal Service mail.

To use the online option, go to Get Transcript Online. There you can view, print or download a copy of the transcript you need. You will, however, need some information to complete your online transcript request, which requires you to authenticate your identity and create an account using the Secure Access process.

Before you start, have handy:

  • Your Social Security number, date of birth, filing status and mailing address from latest tax return,
  • An accessible email account,
  • Your personal account number from a credit card, mortgage, home equity loan, home equity line of credit or car loan to validate your identity and
  • A mobile phone with your name on the account so that a verification code can be sent to you to set up your account.

The verification code step is part of the two-step authentication process is now part of the IRS' effort to make its online services more secure from hackers looking to steal taxpayer identities.

If the mobile phone number is not in your name, for example, your line is part of a family plan account that's under your spouse's name, you may opt during the registration process to have an activation code snail mailed to you.

Getting your transcript through the mail: Obtaining your transcript via snail mail also could be an option if you're not in a big hurry to get the document(s).

But to request delivery this way, you still need to use your computer to access Get Transcript by Mail at IRS.gov.

And again, you'll need some identifying information to request the mailed paper copy, including your:

  • Social Security number or Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN),
  • Date of birth and
  • Mailing address from your latest tax return.

This request will get your tax return or tax account transcript delivered by your postal carrier in five to 10 calendar days at the address the IRS has on file for you.

If you don't have access to a computer to ask for a mailed copy of your transcript, you can call toll-free (800) 908-9946 to request one.

Prior filing data required to e-file: Knowing what was on your last tax return is more important for some taxpayers this filing season. They will be asked for the AGI from their 2017 tax returns in order to validate their electronic signature when they file their 2018 taxes.

If you use the same tax software this year as you did to file last year — or go to the same tax preparer to have your taxes done — the commercial tax software product (or your tax pro) will carry over your prior-year information.

That usually makes for an easy, seamless e-signature validation process.

However, if you switched tax software (or preparers), you may be required to enter the AGI information manually.

E-signature validation: Every taxpayer (and spouse if filing a joint return) must sign his or her tax return. Without that John Hancock, the IRS won't process your filing.

When you file electronically, you still must sign your return. In e-filing cases, that's done by using a four-digit Personal Identification Number (PIN), also known as a Self-Select PIN, that you, the taxpayer, create.

Just like with a pen-and-paper signature, your PIN e-signature is how you acknowledge that information on your return is true and accurate. And so that the IRS knows the return is truly and accurately from you and not an identity thief, the e-signature must be validated.

To validate your PIN, you must enter your birth date and either your prior year AGI as shown on that return or the Self-Select PIN you used the year before.

If you kept a copy of your prior-year tax return, completing this validation task is easy. You'll find your 2017 tax year AGI on line 37 of Form 1040, line 21 on Form 1040-A or line 4 on Form 1040-EZ. (Note that for the 2018 tax year filing, there's just one Form 1040, with six schedules used depending on your filing situation.)

However, if you don't have a copy of your 2017 tax return, see if you can get a copy from the tax preparation software or the tax preparer you used last year.

If not, then it's time to Get Transcript.

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