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Procedures for Signing and Filing Returns

So, you have to file a tax return. Congratulations. Throw on your grown-up pants, and let’s look at when returns are due, signing of the returns, extensions of time for filing returns, and where to file the returns – all of which are contained in Subchapter A of the Code.

If you need a refresher on what makes a return satisfactory to the IRS, check out the article “What is a Return, and When is it good Enough?”  If you are wondering about joint income tax returns, pop on over to the article “Filing Joint Returns under IRC § 6013.”

Defining “Filing” (Because the IRS Didn’t)

Penalties,[1] refund claims,[2] and statutes of limitation on assessment and collection[3] all depend on when a tax return is “filed.” For such an important term, you would assume—and justifiably so—that the Code and/or Treasury Regulations provides a comprehensive definition of the word, extricating every possible iterative meaning that some poor third-year IRS General Counsel attorney could muster.  You would be horribly wrong.

The Code doesn’t, actually, define the word “file.”[4]

Neither do the Treasury Regulations.[5]

What in the actual hell, people? I blame Felecia.

It should be noted that, according to the Supreme Court, even the word “return” is “not a technical word of art,”[6] meaning that it is susceptible to multiple meanings. Nevertheless, I discuss what constitutes a sufficient return in a previous post.

What the Code does say, in IRC § 6901, is that a taxpayer must file his or her income tax return in the internal revenue district where he or she resides or at the service center for that same district.[7] Most taxpayers also have to file any amended return with the correct service center.[8] A taxpayer who wants to file a return does not have to mail it to the IRS; indeed he or she can carry that bad boy by hand and turn it in to any person (read: a grade 3 clerk) “assigned the responsibility to receive hand-carried returns” in the local IRS office.[9]

Thus, for purposes of the Code and the Treasury Regulations, “filing” means the physical delivery of a return to the IRS office prescribed in IRC § 6091 and its corresponding Treasury Regulations.[10] Designated IRS office means just that.  A revenue agent is not a substitute for the designated filing place,[11] and, as such, handing or mailing the return to said RA is not “filing.”[12] Neither is handing a return to IRS counsel prior to trial sufficient.[13] The Tax Court has even held that a return mailed to the wrong service center is not officially filed unless and until it is received by the correct service center.[14]

Why the Filing Date Matters

When a return is required to be filed on or before a prescribed date, the date on which the return is “delivered” to the IRS must be on or before such prescribed date.[15] As I describe in some detail below, “delivery” doesn’t mean received…because why would they make it easy. If properly mailed, a return is “delivered” and therefore “filed” when it is mailed by the taxpayer.

If you are not a tax practitioner and are reading this, I apologize if you now have a throbbing headache stretching from temple to temple. 

Welcome to our world. 

If a return is not filed by the prescribed date—which includes any granted extensions—then the IRS may assert a failure to timely file penalty under IRC § 6651(a) from such date.  Because payment is generally due with the return,[16] the failure to pay penalty under IRC § 6651(b) likewise begins to run on the delinquent due date.

Similarly, when a return is “filed” (subject to the same “timely mailed, timely filed” rule as above as discussed below), such filing begins the clock on the 3-year statute of limitations for a refund claim to be initiated under IRC § 6511(a),[17] as well as the 3-year statute of limitations on assessment under IRC § 6501(a).  For purposes of the refund statute of limitations, if a return is filed before the prescribed date, it is treated as having been filed on the date the return was actually due.[18]

Timely Mailed, Timely Filed

IRC § 7502(a) provides a “timely mailed, timely filed” rule, which is to say, regardless of when received, a document delivered by U.S. mail is “timely” if the postmark date (i.e., the date the petition was mailed) falls on or before the prescribed date, and the document was mailed, on or before that date, in a properly addressed envelope with prepaid postage to the IRS.[19] If those conditions are met, the date of the USPS postmark stamped on the cover is deemed the date of delivery.[20]

Third-Party Postmarks

In the case of postmarks not made by the USPS, the Treasury Regulations impose two requirements that must be met for the rule to apply. First, the postmark must show a legible date on or before the last day of the prescribed period,[21] and second, the item must have been received within the same amount of time as it would have had it been postmarked at the same point of origin by the USPS on the last day of the prescribed period.[22] If the envelope bears a USPS postmark and a non-USPS postmark, the postmark that was not made by the U.S. Postal Service is disregarded, and the date of the USPS postmark controls.[23]

Illegible or Missing Postmarks

Although Treas. Reg. § 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii) prescribes rules for postmarks, there are no rules governing a situation where the envelope has no postmark whatsoever. That’s some Mad Max level shit right there. When a postmark is completely missing, the Tax Court deems the postmark illegible and permits the taxpayer (and the IRS) to introduce extrinsic evidence to assist the Tax Court ascertain the mailing date.[24] The burden is on the party who invokes IRC § 7502 (generally the petitioner) to present “convincing evidence” of timely mailing.[25]

Types of Extrinsic Evidence Considered

When confronted with illegible or missing postmarks, the Tax Court considers various types of extrinsic evidence, including even the testimony of the person claiming to have mailed the envelope.[26] Such cases have turned on whether the petitioners presented convincing evidence establishing that they timely mailed the petition.[27] The Tax Court also has been known, on occasion to don its detective cap and—in full consideration of the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow—endeavors to determine the “likely” delivery time between the place of origin and the Tax Court in Washington, D.C.[28]

The Tax Court may even go full Sherlock Holmes and examine the envelope to see whether any markings indicate that the letter had been misplaced, inadvertently lost, or damaged.[29]

In prior cases, the Tax Court has noted that holiday conditions at the post office (e.g., holiday closures, unusually large volumes of mail, inefficiencies attributable to temporary staff, elves on strike, et al.) could explain short delays in delivery.[30]

Time for Filing Returns and Other Documents

With regard to income tax returns,[31] returns are to be made on or before April 15th following the close of the calendar year.  If the taxpayer uses a fiscal year, then the return should be made on or before the 15th day of the fourth month following the close of the fiscal year…except when it shouldn’t.[32]

Partnership returns[33] and returns of S corporations[34] made on the basis of the calendar year must be filed on or before March 15th following the close of the calendar year, and such returns made on the basis of a fiscal year shall be filed on or before the 15th day of the third month following the close of the fiscal year.[35]

Returns made by nonresident alien individuals (other than those whose wages are subject to withholding under chapter 24) and foreign corporations[36] on the basis of a calendar year must be filed on or before June 15th following the close of the calendar year, and such returns made on the basis of a fiscal year shall be filed on or before the 15th day of the 6th month following the close of the fiscal year.[37]

Other rules applying to cooperative associations (September 15th) and organizations exempt from taxation (May 15th)[38] are also contained in IRC § 6072, but they’re a bit too esoteric for this conversation.

Information Returns

Information returns which are filed electronically must be filed on or before March 31st of the year following the calendar year to which the returns relate.[39] Forms W-2 and W-3 and any returns or statements required by the Secretary to report nonemployee compensation (i.e., Forms 1099) must be filed on or before January 31st of the year following the calendar year to which the returns relate.[40]

Estate and Gift Tax Returns

Estate tax returns[41] shall be filed within 9 months after the date of the decedent’s death.[42] (Be warned, however, certain states like Connecticut have different, shorter periods, so always check the rules of the domicile of the decedent. This can bite you on the ass. Hard. Ask me how I know…)

Gift tax returns[43] shall be filed on or before the 15th day of April following the close of the calendar year.[44] If a taxpayer is granted an extension to file his or her income tax return, this extension serves as an extension for the gift tax return as well.[45] In the year in which the taxpayer dies, the time for filing the gift tax return must not be made later than the deadline (including extensions) for filing the estate tax return.[46]

Signing of Returns and Other Documents

Except as specifically provided for corporate returns[47] and partnership returns,[48] any return, statement, or other document required to be made under any provision of the Code or Treasury Regulations must be signed in just the way the IRS wants it, as generally indicated on the form itself.[49] With respect to electronic signatures, the IRS is working on it.[50] Notwithstanding any other provision of law, any return, declaration, statement, or other document filed and verified, signed, or subscribed by electronic signature (where accepted by IRS guidance) will be treated for all purposes (both civil and criminal, including penalties for perjury) in the same manner as though signed or subscribed through conventional means.[51]

A corporation’s income tax return (Form 1120) must be signed by an authorized officer.[52] In the case of a return made for a corporation by a fiduciary,[53] that fiduciary shall sign the return. The fact that an individual’s name is signed on the return is prima facie evidence that such individual is authorized to sign the return on behalf of the corporation.[54]

Similarly, a partnership return (Form 1065)[55] must be signed by any one of the partners.[56] The fact that a partner’s name is signed on the return is prima facie evidence that such partner is authorized to sign the return on behalf of the partnership.[57]

The fact that an individual’s name is signed to a return, statement, or other document is prima facie evidence for all purposes that the return, statement, or other document was actually signed by him or her.[58] Nearly all returns, declarations, statements, or other documents required to be made under any provision of the internal revenue laws or regulations must contain or be verified by a written declaration that it is made under the penalties of perjury.[59]

Extension of Time for Filing Returns

The IRS may grant reasonable extensions for filing any return, declaration, statement, or other document required by the Code or Treasury Regulations.[60] However, unless taxpayer is abroad, no such extension shall be for more than 6 months.[61] The 6-month extension for filing a corporate income tax return is automatic.[62] The corporation must file a required form and pay its estimated tax; however, the IRS can terminate the extension upon short notice.[63]

Place of Filing Returns

For an individual’s income tax return, the return is made in the district in which the legal residence or principal place of business of the person making the return is located or at a service center serving such district.[64] However, there are exceptions to this general rule.  The IRS will designate by Treasury Regulation the place to make the returns of (i) persons who have no legal residence or principal place of business in any internal revenue district; (ii) citizens of the United States living outside the U.S. and filing the return outside the United States; (iii) persons who claim the benefits of IRC § 911,[65] IRC § 931,[66] or IRC § 933;[67] (iv) nonresident alien persons, and (v) persons with respect to whom a termination assessment[68] was made with respect to the taxable year.[69]

For corporate returns, the return is made in the district in which is located the principal place of business or principal office or agency of the corporation, or where the service center is that serves such district.[70] The IRS will designate by Treasury Regulation the place to make the returns of corporations with no principal place of business in any IRS district, foreign corporations, or with respect to termination assessments.[71]

Finally, with respect to estate tax returns, such returns are made in the district that was the domicile of the decedent at the time of death or at the service center serving such district.[72] The IRS will designate by Treasury Regulation the place to make the return if the domicile was not in an IRS district or if the decedent had no domicile.


Footnotes:

[1] See, e.g., IRC § 6651(a) (failure to file).

[2] See, e.g., IRC § 6511 (limitations on credits and refunds).

[3] See, e.g., IRC § 6501 (limitations on assessment and collection).

[4] Smyth v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2017-29, *8.

[5] Id.

[6] Florsheim Bros. Drygoods Co. v. United States, 280 U.S. 453, 462 (1930).

[7] IRC § 6091(b)(1)(A).

[8] Treas. Reg. § 1.6091-2(e)(1).

[9] Treas. Reg. § 1.6091-2(d)(1); see also Treas. Reg. § 301.6091-1(c) (defining “hand carried”).

[10] Treas. Reg. § 1.6091-2(c); see also Winnett v. Commissioner, 96 T.C. 802 (1991); Notice 2010-53.

[11] Friedmann v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2001–207, *7, aff’d, 80 Fed.Appx. 285 (3d Cir. 2003) (holding “the revenue agent was not the prescribed place for filing”); Metals Ref., Ltd. v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 1993-115 (holding that “[e]ven if the IRS agents received properly executed [partnership] returns, delivery to such agents does not necessarily constitute proper filing”).

[12] See O’Bryan Bros. v. Commissioner, 127 F.2d 645 (6th Cir. 1942), affg. 42 B.T.A. 18 (1940) (mailing of a return to an IRS agent does not constitute the filing of a return); W. H. Hill Co. v. Commissioner, 64 F.2d 506 (6th Cir. 1933), affg. 23 B.T.A. 605 (1931) (hand delivery of a return to an Internal Revenue Service agent does not constitute the filing of a return).

[13] Smyth, T.C. Memo. 2017-29; Quarterman v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2004–241, *3 n.6; Espinoza v. Commissioner, 78 T.C. 412, 419–420 (1982).

[14] See Winnett, 96 T.C. at 808.

[15] IRC § 7502(a)(1).

[16] See, e.g., IRC § 6151(a) (for taxes, such as income, which do not have a fixed date of payment as described in IRC § 6151(c)).

[17] But it does not affect the 2-year statute of limitations running from the time the tax was actually paid.  IRC § 6511(a).

[18] IRC § 6513(a).

[19] IRC § 7502(a)(2).

[20] IRC § 7502(a)(1).

[21] Treas. Reg. § 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(B)(1)(i).

[22] Treas. Reg. § 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(B)(1)(ii).

[23] Treas. Reg. § 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(B)(3); see also Malekzad v. Commissioner, 76 T.C. 963, 966-967 (1981).

[24] See Sylvan v. Commissioner, 65 T.C. 548, 553-555 (1975); Mason v. Commissioner, 68 T.C. 354, 356 (1977).

[25] Mason, 68 T.C. at 356-357; Treas. Reg. § 301.7502-1(c)(1)(iii)(A).

[26] See Mason, 68 T.C. at 357.

[27] See Seely v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2020-6; Sylvan, 65 T.C. at 553-555.

[28] Selter v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2000-316, *11; Robinson v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2000-146, *5.

[29] Robinson, T.C. Memo. at *3.

[30] Rotenberry v. Commissioner, 847 F.2d 229 (5th Cir. 1988); Mason, 68 T.C. at 357.

[31] Such as those filed under IRC § 6012 (income tax returns, generally); IRC § 6013 (joint returns); and IRC § 6017 (self-employment tax returns).

[32] IRC § 6072(a).

[33] Under IRC § 6031.

[34] Under IRC § 6012 and IRC § 6037.

[35] IRC § 6072(b).

[36] Under IRC § 6012.

[37] IRC § 6072(c).

[38] Under IRC § 501(a).

[39] IRC § 6071(a)-(b).

[40] IRC § 6071(c).

[41] IRC § 6018(a).

[42] IRC § 6075(a).

[43] IRC § 6019.

[44] IRC § 6075(b)(1).

[45] IRC § 6075(b)(2).

[46] IRC § 6075(b)(3).

[47] IRC § 6062.

[48] IRC § 6063.

[49] IRC § 6061(a).

[50] IRC § 6061(b)(1).

[51] IRC § 6061(b)(2).

[52] IRC § 6062.

[53] Pursuant to the provisions of IRC § 6012(b)(3) (receivers, bankruptcy trustees, or assignees).

[54] Id.

[55] Under IRC § 6031.

[56] IRC § 6063.

[57] Id.

[58] IRC § 6064.

[59] IRC § 6065.

[60] IRC § 6081(a).

[61] Id.

[62] IRC § 6081(b).

[63] Id.

[64] IRC § 6091(b)(1)(A).

[65] Relating to citizens or residents of the United States living abroad.

[66] Relating to income from sources within Guam, American Samoa, or the Northern Mariana Islands.

[67] Relating to income from sources within Puerto Rico.

[68] Under IRC § 6851(a) or IRC § 6852(a).

[69] IRC § 6091(b)(1)(B).

[70] IRC § 6091(b)(2).

[71] Id.

[72] IRC § 6091(b)(3).

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