If doing this year’s taxes made you wish you could go back in time and claim tax breaks you’ve realized you overlooked or forgot on an old tax return, then congratulations, McFly — time travel is possible at the IRS. Here’s how you can rewind the clock on old tax returns and recoup money you may have left behind.
1. Dial it back to 2015
In general, you can go back and change the last three years of your federal tax returns, says Stephen Varner, a senior tax manager at Kruggel Lawton CPAs, which has offices in Indiana, Michigan and Tennessee. That means this year you can backtrack as far as 2015 to claim tax deductions or credits you overlooked. You can also change your filing status (from single to head of household, for example), or switch between itemizing and taking the standard deduction.
2. Get IRS Form 1040X
This is the flux capacitor of the tax world — it’s what makes it possible to change the past. By filling it out (here's how), you tell the IRS exactly how you want to change an old tax return. Your tax software may have a module that can help you fill out a 1040X electronically, but the IRS is old-school about filing amended returns and requires people to mail in paper copies rather than submit them online. Also, if you’re claiming overlooked deductions or credits, you’ll still need to be able to prove that you qualified for them that year, Varner says. Be prepared to wait, too. The IRS can take up to 16 weeks to process everything, though you can track the status of an amended return using the Where’s My Amended Return tool on IRS.gov.
3. Catch up
If you didn’t file a tax return in the past three years and now you realize you could’ve gotten a big refund, you probably can still file and get your money, Varner says. However, you’ll have to track down your tax records for that year, such as your W-2, which shows what your employer paid you (among other things), and any 1099s, which are records of your capital gains and other forms of income. Finding old tax information can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. In many cases, the people who originally sent you those forms also probably sent a copy to the IRS, which means you might be able to get your hands on at least some of the information by requesting a free tax transcript from the IRS.
4. Get help
Filing or fixing a tax return for a prior year can get complicated quickly because in general you have to follow the tax rules for that particular tax year, Varner says. Plus, you may need to go back and adjust or file your state tax returns. Tax rules and thresholds change every year, so don’t be afraid to get help from a qualified tax pro, he says. Just be sure that you’ll get back more than you spend to get it. “It wouldn't make sense to pay 500 bucks for return prep if your refund is only going to be 500 [dollars],” he says.