Unless you are a fiscal year taxpayer, your tax return must be filed by Wednesday, April 15th. A return is “filed” only when it is actually received by the IRS. If you dropped your return in the mail last week or even earlier, the IRS probably already has received it and it is considered filed. If you are getting ready to mail it, the IRS might not receive it before Wednesday.
This is where the mailbox rule comes in. If the return is mailed on or before April 15th and received by the IRS shortly thereafter, it is considered timely filed. If the return shows up and the IRS keeps the envelope, there shouldn’t be any issues. But, if the return gets lost and never gets to the IRS or the IRS receives the return but throws out the envelope, you will be in the position of having to prove that it was mailed by April 15th. In the Sixth Circuit, which includes Michigan, outside of the envelope itself, the only evidence a taxpayer is permitted to use to establish the date of mailing is certified or registered mail information. In Stocker v. United States, 705 F.3d 225 (6th Cir. 2013), cert. denied, the taxpayers filed their claim for refund (to which the mailbox rule also applies) on the last permissible day. The IRS received the claim, but did not keep the envelope. Because it arrived several weeks late, the IRS claimed it was not timely filed. With the envelope gone, the Sixth Circuit held that the only admissible evidence as to the mailing date was certified or registered mail information. Because the taxpayers had neither, the claim for refund was deemed untimely and, therefore, denied. Anyone living in Michigan who has not already filed his return would be wise to mail it by certified or registered mail.
If you don’t think your return will be ready by April 15th, you can request an extension by filing Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. This form can be downloaded from the IRS website, www.irs.gov. The extension request must be filed on or before April 15th. With the extension, you will have an addition 6 months to file your return. No explanation needs to be given to get the extension. The same mailbox rule that applies to filing returns applies to filing an extension request, so it is best to send the Form 4868 by registered or certified mail.
While an extension gives you more time to file your tax return, it does not give you more time to pay the tax. If any amount is due as of April 15th and not paid, late payment penalties will be applied. Form 4868 requires you to estimate the amount of tax owed and, to avoid imposition of penalties, it is in your interest to make any estimated payment at the time you file the extension request.
Professor Joni Larson teaches the Partnership Taxation, Income Taxation, and Tax Research and Argument courses in the graduate Tax (LL.M.) program. She teaches the Taxation, Wills, Estates and Trusts, and Business Organizations courses in the J.D. program.