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What Is a Tax Return?

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In a Nutshell

It is important to take all the necessary steps to make sure that you have copies of your tax returns or transcripts when you file for bankruptcy. Your tax returns will give the Bankruptcy Court and your Trustee an idea of your financial history. To ensure your bankruptcy case goes smoothly make sure to locate copies of them before filing your bankruptcy case, so you don’t have to rush later.

Written by Attorney Karra Kingston
Updated November 16, 2021

A tax return is a form that an individual (or a married couple filing jointly) submits to the Internal Revenue Service once every year to provide the Department of Treasury with details of their annual income. The Internal Revenue Service uses your tax return (among other things) to determine your tax liability for the year. 

Why Do I Need a Tax Return When Filing Bankruptcy? 

In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee handling your case will ask you to supply two years of tax returns so that they can get an idea of your financial history. If you were required to file a tax return in the 2 years before filing bankruptcy but you didn’t file one, your bankruptcy case can be dismissed before you get your bankruptcy discharge

If you are not required to file a tax return because you don’t earn enough money, you don’t have to worry about getting your case dismissed. After all, you weren’t required to file a tax return. But you will have to submit an affidavit stating that you do not file taxes and the reason why. 

What Is the Difference Between a W-2 and a Tax Return?  

Your Form W-2 is not the same thing as your tax return and it’s important to know the difference between the two. A tax return is a set of forms that detail all of your sources of income and are submitted to the IRS. A W-2 is a form that an employer fills out showing your earned wages and taxes you have paid throughout the year. Your employer also submits this information to the IRS. Usually, your W-2 is attached to your tax return as a supporting document. Even though your W-2 tells the trustee how much your employer paid you during the tax year, it does not provide any of the other information contained in your tax return. That’s why it’s important to make sure you have your full tax return handy when filing bankruptcy.

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What Is the Difference Between a Tax Return and a Tax Refund?

You should also note, a tax return is not the same thing as a tax refund. As mentioned above, a tax return is a formal report of your income and tax liabilities. A tax refund is money that the IRS sends to you after reviewing your tax return. Usually, this is either because you overpaid by having too much taxes withheld from your income, or because you’re receiving a tax credit. Keep in mind, not everyone who files a tax return will get a tax refund. If you have not paid enough taxes throughout the year, then you may owe money at the end of the year. 

How Can I Find Copies of My Tax Returns?

If you are like many people who misplace their tax returns, then you will need to find them. If you have not filed your tax returns in the past two years and should have, then you will need to do so before filing for bankruptcy. If you are unsure how to get your tax returns below are some ways to locate them:

Ask Your Accountant

If you used an accountant, they may be able to locate your taxes for you and send you a copy free of charge. Accountants are required to keep tax return records for a certain time period.

Go Back to the Program You Used if You Did Them Yourself

If you did not use an accountant, dig around your old papers to see if maybe they are mixed in somewhere. Most people recognize that their tax return is an important document to keep in a safe spot. The trick is usually remembering where that safe spot is. If you can’t find them then you may need to check whatever program you used to file them, if you did them yourself. If you still can’t get a copy online, you will need to contact the IRS to get a copy of your tax returns or a tax transcript. 

Get a Copy of Your Tax Return From the IRS

To submit a request for a copy of your tax transcript by mail you will need to send Form 4506-T or Form 4506T-EZ to the IRS. You can obtain an actual copy of your tax return as well. You can get copies of your tax return dating up to six years back. According to the IRS website, the fee for each individual copy of your tax return is $50.00. 

If you are filing for bankruptcy and don’t have your returns as filed, you will need to plan ahead. According to the IRS website, online and telephone orders typically take 5 to 10 days from the time the IRS receives the request. If you are requesting copies by mail, the wait time is a lot longer. It usually takes approximately 30 days to receive a tax transcript by mail and 75 days for copies of your tax returns.

Get a Tax Transcript From the IRS 

If you don’t want to spend that much time and money to request copies of your tax returns from the IRS, you can use a tax transcript for your bankruptcy instead. You can get a transcript by ordering online, over the phone, or by mail. A tax transcript is not the same thing as a tax return. A tax transcript is a summary of your tax return information. You can get tax transcripts for the past three years. The tax transcript shows most of the line item information on your tax return but will not show any changes made after the filing. 

Let's Summarize... 

It's important to take all the necessary steps to make sure that you have copies of your tax returns or transcripts when you file for bankruptcy. Your tax returns will give the bankruptcy court and your trustee an idea of your financial history. To ensure your bankruptcy case goes smoothly make sure to locate copies of them before filing your bankruptcy case, so you don’t have to rush later. 

If you have your tax returns and all you are waiting for is help with the next steps of filing bankruptcy, visit our Learning Center for more information and consider taking our screener to see if you are eligible to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy for free with our help. Upsolve is a non-profit organization that walks you through the process of filing for bankruptcy without the help of an attorney. Our website provides all of the online tools you need to file your bankruptcy for free if you can’t afford to hire a lawyer or help you find one! You tell us!  

Written By:

Attorney Karra Kingston


Ms. Kingston began her career as a bankruptcy attorney. She has appeared in front of many federal court judges and has helped numerous debtors obtain a fresh start. Ms. Kingston understands the complex federal rules for discharging debt. While working as a bankruptcy attorney, Ms... read more about Attorney Karra Kingston

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