The Internal Revenue Code “mailbox rule” provides that for purposes of most Code filing deadlines, a taxpayer will meet the deadline if the item is mailed on or before the required filing date (as evidenced by the postmark on the item). That is, the item does not have to be received by the IRS or other applicable recipient by the filing date – it is enough if it is properly mailed by that date. This explains the long lines at the post office each April 15.
In a recent case, a taxpayer was incarcerated. The taxpayer sought to obtain Tax Court jurisdiction over a tax matter by filing a petition with the Tax Court within the required 90 days after receipt of a deficiency notice. The taxpayer mailed a petition to the Tax Court, but the postmark was after the 90 day period expired.
The taxpayer nonetheless claimed that the mailing was timely under the “prison mailbox rule.” This rule was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266 (1988). There, the Supreme Court ruled that a prison inmate's notice of appeal in a habeas corpus case was deemed filed at the time he delivered it to prison authorities for forwarding to the court.
The taxpayer claimed that he gave his Tax Court petition to prison authorities for mailing before the expiration of the 90 day period, and thus met the 90 day filing requirement, even though the actual posting came after the 90 days. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that it is an unaswered question whether the prison mailbox rule of Houston will apply for tax purposes, since the Internal Revenue Code has its own explicit mailbox rule under Code Section 7502.
Unfortunately for the taxpayer, the Court did not find adequate proof that the taxpayer had submitted the Tax Court petition to prison authorities prior to the 90 day deadline. Indeed, the Court appeared to be highly skeptical of that claim. Therefore, it denied the taxpayer’s claim of a timely filed petition on those grounds.
This result was unfortunate for other similarly situated taxpayers. First, by ruling on the grounds of lack of evidence of timely delivery to prison officials, the Court expressly held open for another day the question whether the "prison mailbox rule" applies for federal tax purposes. Second, it raises practical difficulties for a prisoner that seeks to apply it, as to how to produce sufficient evidence of delivery of items to prison officials for mailing.
Hatch v. Comm., 105 AFTR 2d 2010-xxxx (10th Cir), 1/21/2010