Although they may sound like the same thing, there is a distinct difference between a tax return and a tax transcript. There are times when you may be asked to provide proof of income by providing a copy of your tax return, but there are other times when the tax transcript is sufficient. Knowing the difference between these two IRS documents and how to obtain them will save you time when you need documentation about your income.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
A tax return is used to pay taxes or request a refund. A tax transcript is a summary of your tax return that is provided by the IRS.
Difference Between Tax Return and Transcript
A tax return is the form that taxpayers file with the IRS when they pay taxes or request a refund. There are a variety of reasons that you may be asked to provide a copy of your tax return, including applying for a mortgage or student loan. If you are asked to provide your tax return, you should supply a copy of the exact form you filed, which may be IRS Form 1040, 1040-A or 1040-EZ, depending on the tax year and your individual tax situation.
A tax transcript is a summary of your tax return provided by the IRS. There are a few types of transcripts available. The most basic is the tax return transcript, which contains most line items from the tax return, including the adjusted gross income along with associated forms and schedules. This transcript does not reflect changes made to your return by you or the IRS after it was originally filed. It is available for the current tax year and the previous three years.
A tax account transcript contains the same information as the tax return transcript along with additional items such as marital status, taxable income and the type of tax return you filed. It is available for the current tax year and up to the previous 10 years. This transcript reflects all changes made to the return. An additional type of transcript, the record of account transcript, is a combination of the tax return transcript and tax account transcript. It is available for the current tax year and three years prior.
Request a Copy of Your Tax Return
The IRS recommends that all taxpayers keep a copy of their tax return for at least the previous year. If you don’t have a previous tax return and need a copy from the IRS, you can complete Form 4506, Request for Copy of Tax Return. The form can be downloaded, completed and returned to the IRS with a $50 fee for each tax return requested. Copies of returns are typically only available for the past six tax years. According to the IRS, delivery of a tax return copy can take at least 75 days.
Request a Tax Transcript
The IRS has introduced an online system called Get Transcript that allows you to request transcripts for Form 1040-series returns either online or by mail. Those who don’t want to use this system can also request a transcript by downloading Form 4506-T, Request for Transcript of Tax Return, filling it out and faxing or mailing it to the IRS.
2018 Tax Law
For 2018 taxes filed in 2019, the 1040, 1040-A and 1040-EZ forms have been consolidated into a single, simplified version of Form 1040. The format of tax transcripts was also changed by 2018 tax law. To protect taxpayers from data breaches, only the last few characters of key identifiers are displayed, such as last name, Social Security number and telephone number. To compensate for the fact that the Social Security number has been partially redacted, a 10-digit field will be added to the transcript that can be used by a third party, such as a bank or loan agency, to add a unique identifier for individual taxpayers.
Catie Watson spent three decades in the corporate world before becoming a freelance writer. She has an English degree from UC Berkeley and specializes in topics related to personal finance, careers and business.