How IRS Tax Return Transcripts Work

If you can't quite put your finger on copies of your tax returns, the IRS can help you out.
If you can't quite put your finger on copies of your tax returns, the IRS can help you out.

We all know it's important to save your tax returns after you've filed them. There are any number of reasons you could need a copy of your return later on: a mortgage or refinancing application, loan applications, tax preparation for the next year. Worst-case scenario, you'd definitely want to have them handy if you happen to be audited by the IRS.

How long should you hang on to your returns — do you need to have stacks of papers going back decades? The IRS recommends that you keep them for three years. That's the statute of limitations on audits, assuming you've actually filed returns, haven't committed fraud and declared all of your income. (If you haven't filed returns at all, the IRS can come after you at any time; if you've neglected to report 25 percent or more of your income, it's six years.)

But nobody's perfect. Sure, there are hyper-organized people out there who have their returns in meticulously maintained file cabinets. These folks could easily grab their returns if a mortgage broker requested them. But some of you might be reading this with a growing sense of dread — where exactly are those returns, anyway? Whether they're crammed into a massive pile of papers in the back of a closet or possibly in a file box up in the attic, you're not totally certain you could find them. Or maybe they've been lost in a move — or worse, destroyed in a fire, flood or other natural disaster. What do you do if you've misplaced your tax returns?

Don't panic — it's easy to get free return transcripts from the IRS. On the next page we'll walk you through how to do it.