When you need to file your income taxes, a W-2 is a critical component. You include this information with your annual income tax filing, so waiting around for the form to arrive in the mail can provoke some anxiety. Before you get too annoyed, the formal rules and regulations for this critical piece of paper are available from other sources in case the W-2 isn't there when you expect it to be.
According to the IRS, a company must send you a W-2 by January 31 of the year following the year in which you earned income. For example, if you worked for a company in 2012, that company has to send it to you by January 31, 2013. The date is the same even if you left the company, but you could get it earlier in the month since your total compensation figures were set prior to the end of the year. Your compensation for accumulated (and unused) vacation, severance, outstanding bonuses will all show on a W-2 from a former employer.
If January 31 comes and goes and you still don't have the W-2, confirm your mailing address with the employer. If you don't have the form by February 14, contact the IRS at 800-829-1040. Give the IRS all the details to find your information. The basics include your name, address, Social Security number and phone number, your employer's name and address, and your dates of employment.
The IRS also wants an estimate of your wages and federal income tax withheld. Use your final pay stub, or your final paycheck to estimate both, then file your return with Form 4852, Substitute for Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement. If you don't feel comfortable filing that way, ask for an extension on Form 4868 before April 15. You still have to pay any estimated taxes owed, but filing Form 4868 gives you a 6-month extension, and buy some more time for W-2 to arrive.
While the IRS will take a return without a W-2, it could put a delay on any refund you might get. The IRS needs to verify your income against its records, including the errant W-2 information from your employer, before it processes any refund.