A recent report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration primarily focused on the need for the Internal Revenue Service to expand its electronic filing capabilities also noted that the agency has destroyed some 30 million paper-filed documents in 2021.

“The continued inability to process backlogs of paper-filed tax returns contributed to management’s decision to destroy an estimated 30 million paper-filed information return documents in March 2021,” the report, dated May 4, 2022, states. “The IRS uses these documents to conduct post-processing compliance matches such as the IRS’s Automated Underreporter Program to identify taxpayers not accurately reporting their income.”

IRS said in a May 13 statement that the documents destroyed were document “submitted to the IRS by third-party payors, not taxpayers. 99 percent of the information returns we used were matched to corresponding tax returns and processed. The remaining 1 percent of those documents were destroyed due to a software limitation and to make room for new documents relevant to the pending 2021 filing season.”

The agency added that there were “no negative taxpayer consequences as a result of this action. Taxpayers or payers have not been and will not be subject to penalties resulting from this action.”

The IG report adds that agency management “advised us that once the tax year concludes, the information returns, e.g. Forms 1099-Miscellaneous Information, can no longer be processed due to system limitations. This is because the system used to process these information returns is taken offline for programming updates in preparation for the next filing season.”

More E-Filing Needed

The revelation comes as the IG calls for more documents to be able to electronically filed.

Indeed, the first recommendation of the report was that IRS “develop a Service-wide strategy to prioritize and incorporate all forms for e-filing,” a recommendation the IRS agreed with.

To put the need in context, the IG report highlights the cost of processing a paper return compared to an electronically filed return in 2020. For example, an individual Form 1040 costs 36 cents to process if the form that was filed electronically, but increases to $15.21 if the Form 1040 was filed in paper form. A Form 1041 costs 37 cents to process electronically and $14.02 to process a paper return.

E-filed returns also allow for “a number of upfront validations that check for more than 1,000 possible errors before the IRS accepts an e-filed tax return for processing” giving e-filed returns a greater degree of accuracy, compared to a paper return that requires an individual to keypunch all the details, a key contributor to the backlog of processing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while the agency has been relatively successful in getting individuals to electronically file their returns (a 93.4 percent e-file rate in 2020), it is not having the same success in getting businesses to do the same (63.3 percent e-file rate in 2020). That number goes down to 49 percent when looking at employment tax returns.

IG noted that the agency has not taking previously recommended actions, including:

  • Developing a business tax return e-filing Service-wide strategy;
  • Developing a less burdensome electronic signature process for employment tax returns; and
  • Working with the Department of the Treasury to consider revising current requirements and/or creating new requirements for e-filing business returns.

IG also called upon the IRS to be more active in identifying business who are non-compliant with e-filing mandates and assessing the noncompliance penalties. The report noted that in 2018, there were 897 corporate taxpayers that were mandated to e-file but still filed paper returns. The agency could have assessed more than $2.4 million in penalties that were not assessed on these corporate filers.

The report notes that IRS did not take actions to assess penalties “because of potential implementation issues,” an excuse the IG Office of Audit called “insufficient. The IRS could develop processes and procedures to identify these filers post-filing. In view of the paper backlogs of paper tax returns, the IRS should take additional steps in an effort to continue to reduce paper filings.”