Sending Mail to the IRS: The IRS Mailbox Rule
If I mail a tax document to the IRS, when is a tax document received by the IRS? Hint: it isn’t always when the IRS takes physical possession of the document. The common law and IRS mailbox rules can cause a late-filed tax document to be deemed to have been timely received.
The Common Law Mailbox RuleThe general rule is that a tax document is received by the IRS when the IRS takes physical receipt of the document. This strict physical receipt rule can be unfair, as in the case where a taxpayer mails a tax document to the IRS but the postal system does not timely deliver the tax document to the IRS.
The courts have created a mailbox rule that generally says that documents are received by the government when they are placed in the care and custody of the U.S. Postal Service. With this common law mailbox rule, the courts presume that the U.S. Postal Service will carry out its duties and the mail will be delivered timely, even if it is physically received by the recipient government agency after the due date.
This common law mailbox rule focuses on the regular delivery date. Thus, mailing a tax document to the IRS on the very last day would not be deemed timely--as you would have to look to the normal delivery date for the local post office to deliver the return to the appropriate IRS office.
The IRS Mailbox RuleThe common law mailbox rule applies to just about every type of mail sent to Federal government agencies. Congress enacted I.R.C. * 7502 to provide a tax specific mailbox rule (I refer to this as the IRS mailbox rule even though it applies to tax documents remitted to other agencies, such as the U.S. Tax Court).
The IRS mailbox rule says that:
"If any return, claim, statement, or other document required to be filed . . . on or before a prescribed date under authority of any provision of the internal revenue laws is, after . . . such date, delivered by United States mail to the agency, officer, or office with which such return, claim, statement, or other document is required to be filed, . . . the date of the United States postmark stamped on the cover in which such return, claim, statement, or other document . . . is mailed shall be deemed to be the date of delivery . . . ."
This mailbox rule confirms that a tax document is timely filed with the IRS even though it is not physically delivered to the IRS timely.
This rule is also different than the common law mailbox rule in that it deems the filing date to be the date the mail is given to the U.S. Postal Service. It does not look to the regular mail processing time.
Invoking the IRS Mailbox RuleThe IRS mailbox rule only applies if the document is delivered to the U.S. postal service with sufficient prepaid postage (the IRS issued regulations that extend the rules to other common carriers, such as FedEx and UPS).
The taxpayer will then raise the IRS mailbox rule when it is discovered that the IRS failed to process a tax document or took some action based on the date the document was received.
These issues arise at the administrative level and, depending on the action the IRS took, may be appealable to the U.S. Tax Court and/or Federal district or circuit courts.
Proof for the IRS Mailbox RuleThe taxpayer has to be able to produce some evidence that the mail was delivered to the U.S. Postal Service. This evidence includes the U.S. postmark stamped document (be it the envelope or otherwise) or proof of registered or certified mail.
The taxpayer may also be able to prove the tax document was timely mailed using extrinsic evidence. This includes testimony that the tax document was timely mailed. The testimony does not need to be as strict as testimony establishing that the person saw the postal stamp being applied to the envelope. Testimony establishing that the individual entered the post office with the tax document and came out of the post office without the tax document may suffice.