Filing your taxes is stressful enough. The last thing you need is for the keystone document you need for the whole process to go forward to suddenly turn up missing. If this is the case for you, don’t worry. It’s such a common problem, it’s basically the entire reason why the deadline is in the middle of April:  you might need all that time to get things sorted out.

We have good news and bad news. The good news is whether your employer lost it, the post office lost it, or if you yourself lost it, the process for remedying the situation is the same, so that will make this all easier to explain.

The bad news is this solution will still be moderately to severely annoying and you’re going to be treated as though this is all your fault anyway, regardless of whether or not it is. Buckle up; it’s going to be a bumpy ride, but we’re going to get there.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

The first step to getting an absent W-2 is to simply ask your employer. First things first, don’t assume it was lost just yet. Employers are legally obligated to mail the forms by January 31st, but it might take a bit to arrive. If you’re a week or so into February, ask your employer whether they sent the form.

It’s entirely possible it may have just been a clerical error. Your form may have accidentally been skipped in printing or maybe someone read your address wrong. In fact, one of the most common reasons people don’t get their W-2’s is because the employee moved but one party or another didn’t update their address. When you ask your employers if they sent the forms, double-check nothing like this happened. Your employer probably didn’t withhold your W-2 on purpose.

If nothing else, your employer can print you a new one. There’s one hiccup with this, though:  regardless of whether you lost it, they lost it, or Mike the Mailman lost it, your employer can charge you a processing fee for a new W-2 form, which they are legally allowed to do. You might just have to swallow your pride and bite the bullet on this one, but at least your troubles will end there.

An even bigger hiccup, however, is when your employer is no longer in business. In this case, you’re still expected to try to contact whoever you can from that company to get a W-2 form, which they were still obligated to file even after the business ceased operations. If nothing comes of this, gather all the pay stubs you can find and any other documents you know you’ll need for your taxes, and give the IRS a ring.

Asking a Higher Authority

If your employer can’t or won’t print you another copy, and it’s not appearing in your mailbox, it’s time to get the IRS involved. But take note, there’s a very specific process to asking them for help.

For one thing, you will be expected to have already tried contacting your employer (past or present, operating or defunct) to settle the issue. You can only contact the IRS for assistance on or after February 15th.

The number you need is (800) 829-1040. You will need your name; address; phone number; Social Security number; employee identification number, or EIN (if applicable; check your pay stubs); employer’s name, address, and phone number; the dates you worked for your employer; and your best estimate of how much you made in wages and how much was withheld for federal taxes (your last pay stub of the year can help immensely with this so you don’t have to blindly guess). Assuming your employer wasn’t grossly negligent, the IRS should have gotten a copy of your W-2 form as well, and the above information will help them find it.

Tell them your situation while they look for your form; if they find it, they can send you a new copy, completely free – except for the time you have to spend waiting for it. If they don’t find it, then keep reading and make sure the laces on your boots are tied nice and tight.

Choose a Path

If they can’t find your W-2 form (or if you can reasonably expect it won’t arrive in the mail in time, you have two new options:  you can use substitute forms or ask for an extension.

If you choose to get this over with ASAP, the IRS will give you verbal legal permission over the phone to circumvent the W-2 form. There’s an outside chance they’ll allow you to literally fill out your forms from memory, but it’s more likely they’ll get you a Form 4852, also known as a Substitute W-2 Statement. On this form, it’s expected there will be some guesswork as you piece the puzzle together from your paystubs, so if the numbers aren’t exact, that’s okay – for now.

By that we mean if your W-2 form hasn’t disappeared into the ether and it does eventually arrive after Form 4852, you will be obligated to file an amended tax return. For this, you’ll need Form 1040X.

If you choose to get an extension, hold your excitement. Yes, you may legitimately be granted as many as six months to receive your W-2 and file your taxes the proper way. But keep in mind, if you owe the federal government anything, you’re still going to be on the hook to pay them by Tax Day in April.

An Unlikely Possibility

Earlier, we stressed it was doubtful that your employer would consciously choose to withhold your W-2 form; your superiors are legally obligated to put it in the mail by the end of January. If they willingly keep it from you after that, your boss can actually go to jail. But as many of our readers probably know, some employers don’t care about the law.

This problem is so unlikely, you can hardly find advice about it even if you Google it, but it does sometimes happen. An NAN reader who wishes to remain anonymous inspired this story when he told us about a former employer who is refusing to send his W-2 as a consequence of a dispute over a work uniform the employer says was never returned, demanding he come get it in person and return a uniform he insists he doesn’t have. If this happens to you, tread carefully.

First things first, call the IRS about needing a W-2 form, and while you’re on the phone, be sure to mention your employer is keeping yours from you. Follow any further instructions they give you and when they sufficiently trust your story, they’ll be sure to pay your employer a visit.

Concurrent to this, we strongly recommend seeking a lawyer. Yes, yes, legal help is often expensive, but if you find a lawyer worth their salt, they may be willing to take your case for cheap specifically because it’s such an easy case with absolutely no legal gray area. It’s like asking them to hit a tee-ball. Just be sure to discuss payment before you move forward with them.

Once you have a lawyer in your pocket, get them to write your employer a letter clearly stating the two of you will take them to court if they don’t cough up the W-2. If they call your bluff, you might need to take them to court – small-claims court, specifically.

Again, discuss payment clearly with your lawyer beforehand, but if the person you hired isn’t a complete snake, they’ll likely give you a fair price. They may even agree to just take a large cut of the (inevitable) winnings and not make you pay anything out-of-pocket. You may not wind up with most of the compensation, but you will wind up with your W-2 form and a sense of justice being served without having to pay much.

If it’s mid-February or later and you still don’t have your W-2 form, start taking action now. The process of getting everything in order usually isn’t too hard, but it does take a while, so you’re going to want to use every day until April 15th as economically as you can.