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How many years of back tax returns can the IRS require me to file?

Jim Buttonow, CPA, CITP

SVP Post-Filing Tax Services

Published on: June 06, 2023

In general, the IRS requires taxpayers with delinquent returns to file the past six years of tax returns to be in federal tax compliance. In practice, though, the IRS inconsistently interprets the six-year return filing requirement. If the deadline to file the current year hasnt passed (including filing extensions), the IRS often requests the current-year return plus the previous six years from taxpayers with delinquent returns 

For example, if a taxpayer asked the IRS which years they need to file on March 10, 2023 (before the 4/18 filing deadline), the IRS may have misinterpreted the rule to require the current-year return (2022), plus the past six years (2016-2021). The beginning of the calendar year sets the six-year rule. In the example, after January 1, 2023, the prior six years would be 2017-2022. Taxpayers should ask the IRS to review IRM (4-23-2021) for the proper interpretation of the six-year rule.

Sometimes, IRS managers will require tax returns from even further back than six years, depending on:

  • The degree of flagrancy
  • A prior history of noncompliance
  • The impact on future voluntary compliance
  • The existence of income from illegal sources
  • Whether there is minimal or no tax due
  • The IRS costs to secure the return versus the anticipated tax revenue

Here are the most common reasons the IRS requires returns from more than six years back:

1. There's a large potential tax bill.

The IRS may extend your return requirement if your wage and income information (found on your wage and income transcripts) indicates a potentially large tax bill for the older, unfiled years. The most common red flags are Forms 1099-MISC filings that indicate miscellaneous income, property sales, and large amounts of wages with no withholding.

2. Business returns are involved.

The IRS will closely scrutinize business returns, for several reasons:

  • The IRS doesn’t like to put one business at a competitive advantage over another by waiving potential taxes owed.
  • Businesses often have unknown activity with potentially large balances owed.
  • Businesses are not subject to much reporting via information returns (such as Forms W-2, 1099, etc.).
  • The IRS knows that businesses have the largest potential for noncompliance.

3. The Collection field function is handling the non-filing and/or non-payment.

Delinquent return investigations can involve local field collection personnel (called revenue officers) who perform in-depth investigations on non-filing and collection. Because they often handle business and payroll collection, revenue officers may require more than six years of back tax returns. For most individual taxpayers who don’t have a revenue officer assigned to their matter, the IRS usually accepts the past six years of returns for taxpayers to get back in good standing.

You can contact the IRS directly to understand the number of years you need to file to be filing compliant. Call the number on your notice or the general Form 1040 hotline to speak with an IRS representative about your filing requirements.

If the IRS requests more than the past six years, ask why the IRS is deviating from its policy in PS 5-133. Some IRS representatives may not know the rule and may ask for years before the six-year requirement.

Keep in mind that filing for years before the six-year requirement may benefit you, if it would help you settle as part of an offer in compromise.

We're here for you

Your Jackson Hewitt Tax Pro can help you figure out how many years of back tax returns you need to file to get back into compliance, and research your account to make sure there aren’t any other issues. Our team of licensed professionals are trained to work directly with the IRS, while keeping you updated every step of the way. Start for free today and learn about how we can help resolve your tax issues.

About the Author

Jim Buttonow, CPA, CITP, is the Senior Vice President for Post-Filing Tax Services at Jackson Hewitt. He’s been a leader in helping taxpayers and tax professionals resolve tax problems with the IRS, where he had worked for 19 years in various compliance-enforcement positions. Prior to his current role, Jim’s consulting practice focused on the areas of tax controversy and tax administration, which included leading product development on tax problem software for tax professionals, testifying before Congress, advocating for IRS transparency and efficiency, and proposing innovative large-scale solutions for taxpayers and tax professionals. Jim is also the author of Tax Problems and Solutions Handbook, a publication aimed at helping tax pros work more effectively in post-filing matters and resolving their clients’ most common tax problems.

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