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Three Important Filing Tips for Luddites

There is an immense body of law governing whether last-minute tax filings are timely. So often a cheap little postmark is all that stands between a taxpayer and tax catastrophe. With the IRS herding preparers and taxpayers towards e-filing, timely-mailed, timely-filed cases may seem like an arcane body of law, like piracy cases, but paper filing still has some proud hard-core holdouts, and sometimes only a paper filing will do. At the Tax Court, for example, where the website says “Initial filings, such as the petition, may be filed only in paper form.”

The tax law says that a tax return is considered timely-filed if it is mailed on the due date, but the shift to e-filing can make things awkward for paper filers. For example, few post offices still offer late April 15 hours for last-minute paper filers. Stepping into the last-minute filer void are authorized private carriers of tax documents, like FedEx and UPS. A proper shipping document by an authorized private carrier can document timely filing. That gives taxpayers new ways to meet disaster, as the Tax Court illustrated this week.

A California couple wanting to take the IRS to Tax Court had a July 20, 2009 deadline for filing their petition. They filed by FedEx, perhaps at a FedEx/Kinkos location. They generated a shipping label on their home computer with a July 20 date. But FedEx spoiled everything, as the Tax Court explains:

The petition, which was sent by FedEx Express (FedEx), was received and filed by the Court on Thursday, July 23, 2009. The envelope containing the petition bore two shipping labels. The first shipping label, which had been placed inside a clear plastic pouch adhered to the envelope, had been electronically generated by the sender using FedEx Ship Manager (customer generated label). The second shipping label, which had been affixed to the outside of the clear plastic pouch, had been electronically generated by FedEx (FedEx-generated label).

Of course the FedEx-generated label had a July 21 date. And that, says the Tax Court, is the date that counts, and our couple was out of luck.

So what does that mean to you?

• File electronically if you can. You get a nice electronic confirmation that you can beat up the IRS with, and you don’t have to worry about your valuable tax forms going awry.

• If you must paper-file, Registered Mail or Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested, are still the best deal in town. They’ll generally be cheaper than a private carrier, and that hand-stamped certified mail postmark has the same effect on IRS agents as sunlight on Dracula.

• If you find yourself at FedEx/Kinkos late on April 15, make sure the clerk knows that you need them to stamp it before midnight. If you use private delivery, be sure to use the proper street address, as the private carriers can’t deliver to post office boxes.

Otherwise, you might find yourself trying to reach Jiffy Express.