The IRS recommends that you keep tax records for at least three years from the date you filed your original return, and longer for special situations. You may need copies of your tax returns for tasks like filing future years' taxes, applying for a mortgage loan or student aid, or settling IRS inquiries.
How to Get Your Past Tax Returns
If you cannot find your old tax returns and need to order a tax return transcript from the IRS, you have several options. For the really old-school methods, you can call the IRS at 800-908-9946 and follow the prompts, or fill out IRS Form 4506T-EZ for an individual transcript and mail it to the address noted on the form. The IRS suggests that you submit mail requests thirty calendar days in advance of the need.
Phone requests should take a shorter period of time, but you have to worry about getting through the IRS's busy system, especially during tax season. The simplest and fastest way to get a copy of your tax return transcript is online through the IRS "Get Transcript" application.
You may remember that Get Transcript was shut down in May of last year because of a hacking issue. Hackers were able to secure the identity-authentication-based answers of thousands of taxpayers through hacks on other sites and use them to gain access to taxpayer's IRS records. From there, it was a simple step to file fraudulent tax returns before taxpayers even realized they had been hacked.
The IRS is still working on securing the ability to call up and print a transcript directly, but the Get Transcript site is still the quickest way to get transcripts ordered by mail. You still need to leave five to ten days from the date the request is filed through the site, but until returns can be displayed online securely, this is your best bet for a rapid response.
If you have moved since your last return, then you need to submit a Change of Address form (IRS Form 8822) prior to submitting your request through Get Transcript, since the Get Transcript tool will mail the transcript to your address of record listed on the tax form. The change of address process will also take several weeks — another reason why you should plan ahead when submitting your tax return transcript requests.
In specific circumstances, you may be able to speed up the process by using alternate systems that the IRS has in place with various institutions. If you are filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a necessity for virtually any form of student aid, you can use the built-in IRS data retrieval tool on the FAFSA website to transfer the necessary information without having to order a transcript. Similarly, any mortgage lender that participates in the Income Verification Express Service (IVES) can receive your transcript directly with your consent.
Note that these rules apply to tax return transcripts, which are different from tax account transcripts. Tax return transcripts show your return as it was filed. Tax account transcripts show any changes made to your form after filing, by either you or the IRS. If what you need is a tax account transcript, or you need a transcript for any period beyond three years ago, you will need to complete Form 4506-T, Request for Transcript of Tax Return, and mail it to the address listed on the form.
If you need a tax transcript, review your options above — but whichever you choose, be sure to plan ahead far enough in order to have a transcript in hand when you need it.