If you haven’t filed taxes in several years, you’re probably wondering what’s going to happen if the IRS catches you. The consequences vary depending on the situation, but to help you out, we’ve put together an overview of what to expect.
When people in this situation contact us, they typically have one big question — how far back can the IRS go for unfiled returns? Here’s the bad news, the agency can go back an unlimited amount of time. There is no IRS statute of limitations on unfiled tax returns.
However, in a lot of cases, you can catch up by filing just the last six years of returns, and the IRS has all kinds of programs to help people pay their unpaid taxes. Remember, it’s always better to deal with the situation proactively than wait for the IRS to find you.
This post explains the IRS statute of limitations on unfiled tax returns. Then, it looks at what happens if you don’t file a tax return and explains how to get caught up with your past-due tax returns.
What Is the IRS Statute of Limitations on Unfiled Tax Returns?
There is no statute of limitations on unfiled tax returns. If you don’t file taxes, the timeline for the statute of limitations never starts. This means that the IRS can go back indefinitely, but in most cases, the IRS only looks back six years. However, this timeline can change if tax evasion or other serious issues are involved.
IRS Statute of Limitations
The IRS has several different statutes of limitations for different actions. Again, there is no statute of limitations for unfiled tax returns. There is also no statute of limitations for tax fraud. This means that the IRS can go back 10, 20, or even 50 years in theory. However, in practice, the agency usually only goes back six years.
Here are the other statutes of limitations related to your federal income tax return:
The IRS has three years to assess taxes once a return has been filed. This means that after you file your tax return, the IRS has three years to audit the return and assess additional tax against you. However, if you understate your tax liability by 25% or more, the IRS can go back six years.
The statute of limitations for audits is the same as it is for assessments. Again, however, if you understate your tax liability or if you have an FBAR violation, the agency can go back six years.
For payroll tax return audits, the statute of limitations is also three years, but it doesn’t start until April 15 of the year following the year the wages were paid. However, with ERC claims from the last two quarters of 2021, the IRS has five years to start an audit.
You also only have three years to claim a refund. If you haven’t filed, you have three years from the original due date to file and get a refund. Similarly, if you amend a previously filed return to get a refund, you only have three years from the date you filed or two years from the date you paid the tax.
Criminal tax charges
In cases of suspected fraud, the IRS has six years from the time the return was filed or six years from the last willful act that prevented you from filing. There is a lot of subjectivity in determining the last willful act. Effectively, that can mean that the IRS has unlimited time to assess fraud charges against you if you haven’t filed a return.
Once a tax has been assessed against you, the IRS has 10 years to collect it. After this time, the agency can no longer enforce collections against you. However, the tax must be assessed. This happens when you file a return or the IRS assesses tax in an audit. However, if you don’t file your return, the IRS can file a substitute for return (SFR) on your behalf, and this counts as a tax assessment.
Once the statute of limitations passes, the IRS can no longer take action. Again, however, if you don’t file a return, the clock never starts ticking for tax assessments or collections. That means if you have an unfiled return from years ago, the agency can assess the tax with an SFR, and then, if you don’t pay, it can forcibly collect the tax from you. This can include tax liens, wage garnishments, bank account levies, asset seizures, and other actions.
What Happens If You Don’t File a Tax Return?
The consequences of not filing vary depending on your unique situation. Here are a few of the things that can happen.
Losing Your Tax Refund
You only have three years to file a tax return and claim a refund. The timeline for this statute of limitations starts on the return’s due date. For instance, your 2021 tax return was due Monday, April 18, 2022. That means you have until April 18, 2025, to file and claim a refund on your 2021 tax return.
Having a Substitute for Return Filed by the IRS
If you don’t file, the IRS may file a substitute for return (SFR). These returns are often incorrect, and the IRS reports your income but not your deductions. As a result, SFRs generally lead to a much higher tax liability than you would owe if you filed a correct return.
The penalty for not filing a tax return is 5% of the amount you owe. It applies monthly, and it can get up to 25% of the balance. There are also failure-to-pay penalties and penalties for understating the tax you owe. The IRS also assesses interest on your unpaid balance, and that accrues from the day the return is due until you pay the tax.
Difficulty Getting Loans
Not filing a return can also affect your ability to get loans. Many lenders want to see your tax return as proof of your income. This is especially true if you are self-employed or if you are applying for a mortgage.
What to Expect If You Receive an SFR for Unfiled Tax Returns
A substitute for return is a tax return that the IRS files on your behalf if you have missing tax returns. The agency uses income information it has received from third parties such as W2s from employers, 1099-NECs from clients, 1099-Ks from payment processors, 1099-INTs from banks, and similar forms. Typically, these returns use the single filing status, and they don’t include any dependents, deductions, or tax credits.
If the IRS sends you a substitute for return, you have 30 days to do one of the following:
- File a correct Form 1040 (Individual Income Tax Return) — Filing your tax return ensures that the IRS knows how much you really owe.
- Sign a Consent to Assessment and Collection — This indicates that you agree with the tax shown on the SFR and you give your consent for the IRS to collect it.
- Write a letter explaining that you didn’t have a filing requirement — You don’t always have to file a return. If your income was under the standard deduction, you had less than $400 in net self-employment income, and you didn’t owe any special taxes, you probably didn’t need to file. Note that the filing rules are complicated, and if you’re unsure, you should reach out to a tax professional for help.
If you ignore the SFR, the IRS will send you a Notice of Deficiency. Also called a 90-day letter, this notice shows how much tax, interest, and penalties you owe. It also explains your rights to appeal in Tax Court. If you ignore this letter, the IRS can start collection actions against you. This may include tax liens, wage garnishments, and asset seizures.
How to Catch Up on Unfiled Returns
Dealing with unfiled returns can feel very overwhelming. Most taxpayers aren’t even sure where to start. The standard advice is to gather your paperwork and fill out the returns that correspond to the unfiled years. However, this is easier said than done. Most people who haven’t been filing don’t have the paperwork they need on hand Here are some tips to help you.
- Set up an online IRS account — You can request copies of W2s, 1099s, and other payments. You can also see if you pay any estimated tax payments on your account.
- File Form 4506-T (Request for Transcript of Tax Return) — This paper form lets you request a transcript of your old tax returns, but you can also request wage and income transcripts. This is often the easiest way to get your payment information.
- Contact previous employers and other payers — If you don’t want to risk getting on the IRS’s radar by setting up an online account, you may want to reach out to the people who paid you. They may be willing to send you copies of the forms you need.
- Gather info about business expenses – Business owners need to deduct expenses from revenue to calculate net profits. If you don’t have bookkeeping records, look through bank and credit card statements to find your expenses. Vendors and utility companies may also have records of what you spent in various years.
Once you have the information you need, make sure that you select the tax returns from the correct years. The IRS updates its tax forms annually so you can’t use the current year’s return to file for a previous year.
Some tax prep software lets you fill out previous years’ returns, but generally, you won’t be able to e-file. You will need to print and mail the returns. A tax professional can help you handle all aspects of this process. They can help you figure out which years you need to file. They can also help you obtain your wage and income documents from the IRS or directly from the payer.
How Does the IRS Find Out About Unfiled Returns?
Generally, the IRS finds out about unfiled returns when it notices a mismatch between payment documents and filed returns. For instance, if the IRS has been receiving W2s or other tax documents with your Social Security Number, it will eventually notice that you didn’t file.
In February 2020, the IRS announced that it was going to start paying in-person visits to people who hadn’t filed their tax returns. The agency also renewed its focus on automating SFRs and taking other action against non-filers. Ultimately, you probably won’t go to jail for not filing, but you can face other severe consequences for not filing.
However, just a few weeks later, the COVID pandemic forced the IRS to change its course, and ultimately, the agency ended up suspending many collection actions for over a year. It’s very likely that the IRS will begin focusing on non-filers as the agency gets back to business as usual.
How to Pay Taxes Due to Unfiled Returns
People don’t file their tax returns for all kinds of reasons. They may be busy with work or dealing with health problems. Or they may just put off the task because it’s unpleasant. A lot of people, however, don’t file because they don’t think that they can afford to pay if they owe taxes.
If you have unfiled returns and you’re worried about a tax bill, you are not alone. There are many people in your situation, and the IRS has options including the following:
- Installment agreement — Make monthly payments on your tax debt for up to six years.
- Offer in compromise — Settle your tax debt for less than you owe.
- Partial payment installment agreement— Make monthly payments on a tax settlement.
- Currently not collectible status— Prove you can’t pay so the IRS temporarily stops collection actions against you.
Once you file your returns, you can also try to reduce the balance by requesting penalty abatement. Generally, it’s better to file all of your delinquent returns at the same time. This makes it easier to request penalty abatement for several years at the same time.
Note that most of the above programs require you to stay compliant with your tax filing and payment obligations. For instance, if you are making payments on an installment agreement and you fail to file a current year’s return, you will be in default of your agreement. Then, the IRS can demand the full balance and try to enforce collection actions against you.
How to Deal With Unfiled Returns
To break it down, here is what you need to do if you have unfiled tax returns:
- Determine if you had a filing requirement. Note that even if you weren’t required to file, you may want to file a return so that you can claim a tax refund if applicable.
- Figure out how many years you need to file. Again, the IRS typically only requires you to file the last six years of returns, but the requirement can vary based on the situation. Because there is no statute of limitations on unfiled tax returns, the IRS can require you to file all of the returns that you missed.
- Gather financial information for the years you need to file. You need information about your wages and other income, business revenue and expenses, and details about your dependents. If you paid estimated tax payments, you also need those numbers.
Get Help With Unfiled Tax Returns
Dealing with your current year’s taxes can be stressful. Dealing with back taxes can be almost unbearable, but we can help. At Damiens Law Firm, we focus on helping our clients resolve tax issues including unfiled returns and tax debts. We can help you file your back taxes and make payment arrangements with the IRS.
Unfortunately, when clients ask us how far back can the IRS go for unfiled taxes, we have to tell the, that there is no statute of limitations on unfiled returns. The IRS can come after you at any time, and the longer you wait, the worse the penalties and interest will be. To protect yourself, your business, and your assets, contact us today.