The IRS wants you to file a return voluntarily and on time every year. But, if you don’t file a return on time, the IRS can eventually file a return for you – it’s called a substitute for return , or SFR.

The IRS uses the information it has (usually information statements about your income, like Forms W-2 and 1099) to file for you. But the IRS doesn’t give you any credits or deductions that you might use if you prepared and filed your own return.

The consequence

You’ll owe the maximum possible taxes and penalties.

The solution

Lower your taxes and penalties by filing a correct return, with all your deductions and credits, to replace the return filed by the IRS.

The IRS can take 2-3 years to file a tax return for you, so you have time to act if you haven’t filed a return. Here’s what will happen:

  • The IRS will send a series of notices (starting about seven to eight months after the return was due) asking you to file.
  • If you don’t file, the IRS will then put you into a “tax delinquency investigation.”
  • If you still don’t file or explain why you don’t need to file during the investigation, the IRS can start filing a return for you (the SFR) – and start collecting on your tax bill.

The IRS may automate this process or send a local IRS revenue officer to get more information from you to file an SFR. Either way, the best move is to immediately file a tax return.

If the IRS has already filed an SFR for you, you can reduce your tax bill by filing an accurate return to replace the SFR.

One word of caution

After the IRS files an SFR, the IRS will scrutinize any return you file to replace the SFR.

It’s best to order your Forms W-2 and 1099 from the IRS (these are called wage and income transcripts ) and use them to make sure you properly report everything on your return.

You should also make sure you’re prepared to back up any items on your return, since the IRS is more likely to audit your new return.

Learn about unfiled tax returns

Related Tax Terms

Substitute for Return (SFR)
Automated Substitute for Return (ASFR) Unit
Failure to File Penalty
IRS Delinquent Return Program
IRS Wage and Income Transcript

Related IRS Notices

IRS Letter 1862 – Initial Contact Letter – Substitute for Return Program
IRS Notice CP2566 – The IRS Still has not Received Your Form 1040 – You Must File a Tax Return
IRS Notice CP59 – Form 1040 Tax Return Not Filed
IRS Notice CP516 – Unfiled Form 1040
IRS Notice CP518 – You Must File Your Tax Return

Related Information

How to File Back Tax Returns with the IRS

Learn about the consequences and complications of an unflied tax return.

Five Reasons Self-Employed People Should File Back Tax Returns — Now

Learn about the consequences you may face if you are self-employed and have unfiled returns. Get the facts .

How to Get Your Old IRS Forms W-2 and 1099

Need copies of your old Forms W-2 or 1099? Learn about the four different ways to obtain IRS wage and income transcripts.

Can the IRS Do That?

Ever wondered if the IRS can take your paycheck, get your financial information or call you directly? Get the facts.

How to Use First-Time Penalty Abatement

Get the facts about the widely available but little-known IRS penalty relief option called first-time penalty abatement.

The IRS Offers Alternatives When You Can’t Pay Your Tax Bill

Get the facts about IRS payment options when you can't pay your tax bill, including short-term extensions, monthly payment plans, and more.

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