The start of tax season used to be heralded by the arrival of tax forms in the mail.
The Internal Revenue Service decided this year not to automatically mail them to individual and business taxpayers. "It's a sign of the times," said Terry Lemons, IRS senior spokesman. "More people are going electronic. We're interested in saving taxpayers money."
He said the agency realizes that not everyone has access to the Internet or to computers. "We think most people are going to have options to get this information," he said.
Forms will be available at many public libraries, post offices and other community sites. They also can be ordered through the IRS Web site, www.irs.gov . In addition, there are programs such as Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly, Lemons said.
Kathy Pickering, executive director of the Tax Institute at H&R Block, said the decision against mass mailing of forms has another benefit. "With late passage of the tax bill, the IRS did not have to send out forms that were obsolete," she said. "It provided them with some agility."
Congress passed a tax bill, which included extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, during a post-election session that ended just before Christmas.
Lemons said only 8 percent of individual taxpayers got paper tax packages in the mail last year. Those people were mailed postcards last fall informing them about the decision against mass tax-form mailings and telling them where they could get the required forms. Still, some may have missed the postcard.
Electronic filing of tax returns is gaining in popularity. The IRS said nearly 99 million returns were filed electronically last year, up 3 percent from 2009. While nearly two-thirds of the electronic returns were filed by professional preparers, the biggest growth — 8 percent — was among those who did their taxes themselves. Last year, 34.8 million self-prepared tax returns were received electronically by the IRS.
Tax experts expect the trend to continue.
The IRS on its Web site says benefits of filing electronically include faster refunds and greater accuracy.
J.K. Lasser's "Your Income Tax 2011" says that with electronic filing, taxpayers can expect a refund within one to two weeks if they choose direct deposit, or in three weeks if they opt to have a check mailed to them.
Under the IRS' Free File program, taxpayers earning less than $58,000 a year can use tax preparation software and file electronically at no cost. Some of the tax preparation software companies also provide no-cost filing for taxpayers under certain income levels.
The government also provides forms that can be filled out online and filed electronically by taxpayers of all income levels. The "Free File Fillable Forms" service does basic math calculations for taxpayers but does not include any tax preparation software.
Taxpayers who must submit certain documentation with their return, such as those claiming the homebuyer tax credit or the adoption credit, will still have to file paper forms.