A W-2 is the little form your employer sends you each January. The W-2 documents how much you earned and how much in taxes your employer withheld from your pay. You need to wait until your W-2 arrives before preparing and filing your tax return. If a W-2 is missing or damaged, you don’t need to use your last pay stub. The Internal Revenue Service provides a substitute form.

Wait for the W-2

Maybe you’ve got a refund coning and you are eager to file and get the money. Wait for your W-2 form to arrive and don’t try to file early using your last pay stub. Employers are supposed to send W-2s out so you get them by Jan. 31. You can’t file much earlier in any case. For example, in most years, the IRS tax season starts Jan. 31, and electronic returns were not accepted before that date. Filing a paper return early doesn’t speed things up, because the IRS won’t process them until the tax season opens.

Missing W-2 Forms

Suppose a W-2 form doesn’t show up in January or it gets messed up. The IRS says to try to get a replacement if you don’t have the W-2 by Jan. 31, rather than trying to use your last pay stub of the year as a substitute. Tell your payroll department immediately. If your request for a replacement doesn’t produce results by Feb. 14, notify the IRS. Provide contact information for you and your employer. Use the last pay stub to make an estimate of your earnings and taxes withheld. The IRS will try to get a replacement W-2 sent to you.

Substitute W-2 Form

The IRS doesn’t want you to be late filing your tax return. If April 15 starts getting close and you still have no W-2, fill out Form 4852, “Substitute for Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement.” You can use your last pay stub to get the information you need to complete the form. Then just prepare and submit your tax return in the usual manner. Attach the 4852 form as if it were your W-2.

Following Through

Occasionally a missing W-2 shows up after you already filed your taxes using the 4852 form as a substitute. The IRS says to compare the information you entered on the 4852 form to the figures on the W-2. If the numbers don’t match, you can file an amended tax return to correct the error. If you owe more tax as a result, send in payment along with the amended return. If you are entitled to money back based on the amended return, the IRS will refund it to you.