Sometimes, when a person does not file a tax return on their own, the IRS will prepare one based on the information they have available. This is called a substitute for a tax return or SFR. The IRS does this so they can assess tax and begin collection activities. But just how does a SFR get filed and what are the ramifications? Read on to find out.
Situations where the IRS will file a SFR
A SFR is typically filed when the IRS notices that a person hasn’t filed for a few years, but that person has income documents on file with them (e.g. W-2, 1099-MISC). The IRS will then file SFRs for all the unfiled years based on the information on those tax documents.
How does the IRS calculate the tax on a SFR?
The SFR is always prepared in the best interest of the government. What this means is that they will use the filing status of Single and they will not include any deductions or credits. Typically this can result in the taxpayer having a balance owed. Now let’s think about that for a second. If a tax return is prepared without any deductions, without any tax credits, it’s quite likely that the IRS’s calculation of tax is much higher than it should be. Thus, in most cases, that’s just what happens. There are even instances that had the taxpayer filed the return themselves, the IRS would owe them a refund.
Does the IRS have the authority to file a return on your behalf?
The short answer is yes. Congress authorizes the IRS to prepare tax returns based on information available to it in situations where a person has not filed a return (Internal Revenue Code 6020).
What happens after the SFR is filed?
The IRS will send you a Notice of Deficiency CP3219N (90-day letter) proposing a tax assessment. You then will have 90 days to file your past due tax return or file a petition in Tax Court. If you do neither, the IRS will proceed with their proposed assessment.
Technical implications of having a SFR filed on your behalf
It’s important to know that a SFR is not an “original” return (i.e. filed by the taxpayer). As such, the IRS treats them differently when it comes to several things. A SFR that is not signed by the taxpayer:
- Does not start the collections statute of limitations
- Does not start the audit statute of limitations
- Has no effect on the refund statute of limitations
Per the Internal Revenue Manual 220.127.116.11.4.5, “the assessment date will start the period for the statute of limitations for collection per IRC Section 6502(a)(1), but does not start the period of limitations for assessment.” However, if a person agrees with the SFR, then signing it does start the audit statute of limitations. From the same section of the Internal Revenue Manual, “If the taxpayer signs a SFR return prepared from income information received from the taxpayer, it becomes the taxpayer’s return per IRC Section 6020(a) and starts the assessment period of limitations.”
Should a person file an original return after the IRS files a SFR?
If a taxpayer didn’t file an original return, they always have the opportunity to do so. Filing the original return after an SFR has been filed allows the taxpayer to possibly choose a more advantageous filing status if applicable (e.g. Head of Household, Married Filing Jointly, etc.) as well as include any deductions and credits they are entitled to. This may reduce or eliminate the tax that the IRS says the taxpayer owes.
The IRS has temporarily suspended the ASFR case selection
In September of 2018, a Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) official announced suspension of the automated substitute for return (ASFR) program. As such, selection of new cases (i.e. the IRS filing SFRs on a taxpayers behalf) is not occurring at the moment. This is due to “resource limitations” which can be construed as the series of IRS budget reductions that have taken place in recent years. Furthermore, the IRS has stated that they remain committed to taking many actions in 2018 to improve methods of allocating nonfiler cases across their potential compliance treatment streams, and this includes the ASFR program.
So while the IRS is not “currently” filing SFR returns for taxpayers, don’t expect it to last forever. It’s also important to note that the IRS said it is continuing to work on active ASFR cases and ASFR reconsiderations.