A W-2 is a statement of wages that shows how much an employer has paid an employee during the previous year, as well as how much tax has been withheld. A 1099-MISC form serves a similar purpose for independent contractors. It’s essential for employees and independent contractors to have information on these forms to accurately complete their federal income tax returns.
These forms come from employers. By every January 31, employers have to send employees copies of W-2 and 1099 forms. But sometimes those forms aren’t sent, get lost in the mail or are lost by the taxpayer by the filing deadline of April 15. If that happens, the taxpayer could be unable file a return on time, potentially incurring penalties and interest for failure to file.
If you’re not sure where your forms are and are wondering, "How can I get a copy of my W-2 online?" or “What if I lost my W-2?” don’t feel bad and don’t worry. Often, a W-2 isn’t missing because the taxpayer lost it.
“It is common for business owners to misplace important tax documents,” according to Rhonda Collins, director of tax content and government relations for the National Association of Tax Professionals, a trade group based in Appleton, Wisconsin. To avoid lost W-2s, Collins recommends that both businesses and individual taxpayers keep careful records.
Whatever the cause, a lost W-2 can be trouble, because the information on it is essential for preparing tax returns.
How to Get a W-2
Fortunately, if you’re wondering how to get your W-2 form, there are some ready answers. In most cases, you won’t have to do anything except check your mail. That’s because employers are required to send W-2s to all employees by the end of January. However, this doesn’t always happen. W-2s can get lost in the mail and sometimes they are misplaced by the taxpayer after receiving them.
Given that you can file your taxes online, it’s natural to ask: “How can I get a copy of my W-2 online?” There are a couple of ways to do this.
Some tax return preparation firms maybe be able to get a copy of your W-2 form sent to you. If you use a tax preparation firm, visit the company's website and see if you're able to request that a copy of your lost W-2 be emailed to you.
The IRS also has an online tool to request wage and income transcripts. This lets you get the information—but not the actual form—that was reported on the W-2, 1099 or other forms. There is one potential catch, however. Transcripts of wage and tax information for the current year may not be available on the IRS website until July, past the usual April 15 filing date.
What to Do in Case of a Lost W-2 or 1099
Sometimes you may not be able to use your tax preparer’s service and the IRS doesn’t have your current year’s information available. If that happens, there are several other answers to the question of how to get a lost W-2.
Contact Your Employer
Whatever the cause of a lost W-2, the first place to look is with your employer. “If documents are lost, the taxpayer would simply reach out to the issuer of the document and request a replacement,” Collins says. The business should be able to supply a copy of the original W-2 on request.
Call the IRS
If the employer doesn’t comply or can’t be reached, the IRS will help. Be ready to give your name, address, phone number, taxpayer identification number and dates of employment. You’ll also need your employer's name, address and phone number and, if you have it, employer identification number.
The IRS will take over from there. The agency will contact the employer to request the missing form.
File on Time
Sometimes none of these approaches succeeds and you can’t get your lost paperwork by April 15 from your own files, your employer or the IRS. If you’re wondering, “What if I lost my W-2 and nothing is working?” Relax, you can still file on time.
When you contact the IRS to get an answer to the question of how to get lost W-2, in addition to nudging your employer, the agency will send you a Form 4852. This form can be used as a substitute for a missing W-2. All you have to do to replace your lost W-2 form is estimate your wages and taxes withheld and fill in the amounts on Form 2852.
If you don’t have your lost W-2 or even a Form 4852 by the deadline, you still have another way to correct the problem. You can do this by getting an extension of the time to file.
Any taxpayer can get an automatic extension of time to file by filing a Form 4868. This will give you another six months past the usual April deadline to get your return in. Note, however, that you have to estimate your tax liability and pay by the normal April filing deadline.
Penalties for a Lost W-2 and 1099 Form
If you don’t file your return by the due date because you don’t have a W-2, the consequences could potentially be serious. The IRS levies a penalty of 5 percent of the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month a return is late. That can go up to 25 percent of the unpaid taxes. If you file more than 60 days late, the minimum penalty is $435 or 100 percent of the tax, whichever is less.
There’s also interest. The IRS charges interest on underpayments. The interest is compounded daily based on the previous day's balance plus the interest. The interest rate, which is the short-term Federal Funds rate plus 3 percentage points, is not high compared to credit cards and other costly loans. But it can add up quickly.
How to Obtain a W-2 for a Previous Year
If it’s easy to lose a W-2 for the current tax year, it’s even easier for past years. If you need to file an amended return for a prior year and don’t have the relevant W-2, you can request a transcript of your missing W-2 form from the IRS. Sometimes this can work for the current year as well.
The IRS online tool to request wage and income transcripts also lets you get the information that was reported on your W-2, 1099 and other forms for previous years. You can request a lost W-2 for any one of the last 10 tax years.
If You Forget to Include a W-2 or 1099
If you can lose a W-2, you can also forget to include one on your return. If that happens, or if you realize you included incorrect information on your return, you can file an amended return as soon as you receive or locate the missing form.
To do this, file a Form 1040X. This is the IRS form for an amended return. Include the missing or updated information in your amended return.
While letting the IRS know you made a mistake may sound risky, it’s not likely to turn out badly. “You don’t want to panic,” says Raphael Tulino, an IRS spokesman in Washington, D.C. “Mistakes happen. The agency realizes that. Willful omission is another matter.”
If you make an honest mistake and move quickly to file, the penalties should not be too burdensome. However, you should not file an amended return to correct missing or inaccurate until your original return has been processed. A return has been processed when a check paying due taxes has cleared or a refund has been received.
If you need to get your 1040X amended return in as soon as possible, consider forgoing the paper return route even if that’s what you’re used to. “You can file an amended return electronically,” Tulino says. “That’s recommended these days because everything’s taking so long during the pandemic.”
The main thing to keep in mind about a lost W-2 form is that it’s a potentially significant problem but not an insurmountable one. If you have been issued a tax document, you can get another one. “I am not aware of any documents in which a taxpayer cannot request a replacement document,” Collins says.
A version of this article was originally published on March 13, 2014.
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