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    SEAN P. MURPHY | THE FINE PRINT

    Fidelity sent back a $6,500 IRA payment because the postmark was smudged

    Wendy Dodek said that while her experience has been frustrating, “maybe it can serve as a warning to your readers.”
    Barry Chin/Globe Staff
    Wendy Dodek said that while her experience has been frustrating, “maybe it can serve as a warning to your readers.”

    Wendy Dodek dropped the envelope in the mail on April 14 and immediately felt the satisfaction of investing in her retirement.

    She was sending a check for $6,500 to Fidelity Investments, the annual contribution to her Individual Retirement Account. She has done it for 30 years, a springtime ritual, as routine as filing her tax return.

    But 10 days after Dodek mailed her check in Brookline, Fidelity returned it — uncashed. Fidelity said she had missed the April 17 deadline for making her contribution.

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    Dodek was stunned, certain she had met the deadline. As a longtime Fidelity customer, she was also angry, expecting more than an impersonal “Dear Valued Customer” form letter with scant explanation for why she was losing out on a significant tax break. (Funds from a Roth IRA generally can be withdrawn tax-free, typically when you are at least age 59½ and you have had the account for at least five years.)

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    Fidelity says it did not receive the check at its Cincinnati office until April 21, four days after the IRS deadline for making an IRA contribution.

    But that wouldn’t have mattered as long as Dodek’s envelope was postmarked by April 17. Turns out, though, that the smudged postmark from the post office was illegible.

    Fidelity included with its letter to Dodek a somewhat fuzzy photocopy of a portion of the envelope she used to mail her check. Dodek agrees with Fidelity’s conclusion; the postmark is indeed indecipherable.

    When Dodek spoke to a Fidelity representative, she was told that the company could not accept an IRA contribution unless it could “verify” that it had been mailed by the IRS-imposed deadline. The rep said the IRS was “very strict” about Fidelity enforcing the deadline.

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    The IRS actually says nothing about a postmark in regard to an IRA contribution, although it does use the old-fashioned postmark test for deadline compliance on filing tax returns. What the IRS says on IRA contributions is that they must be made before the tax filing deadline, without explicitly defining “made,” said Dana J. Levit, a Newton certified financial planner.

    Did Dodek make her contribution before the deadline? Her check is dated April 13, four days before the deadline. She had made similar contributions about that time every year going back to the 1990s.

    Fidelity has no evidence that she mailed the check after April 17, but Dodek can’t prove that she mailed it on time.

    Fidelity said the postmark on Dodek’s envelope was illegible.
    Barry Chin/Globe Staff
    Fidelity said the postmark on Dodek’s envelope was illegible.

    Would anyone fault Fidelity, the Boston-based financial giant with $2 trillion under management, if it gave Dodek the benefit of the doubt?

    No one from Fidelity called Dodek to offer to work with her on finding a solution to this highly unusual event. (I talked with two certified financial planners with decades of experience who said they have never heard of such a thing.) Fidelity simply returned the check to its “Valued Customer.”

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    “I never imagined the onus would be on me to prove I sent it before the deadline,” Dodek, a museum educator, told me. “It’s extremely frustrating, especially for someone who has had such a long relationship with Fidelity.”

    Fidelity responded to me with a statement crafted by its public relations staff that says virtually nothing: “Fidelity’s policies and procedures are designed to accommodate customers by accepting checks” that are “mailed in accordance with” IRS rules.

    Fidelity apparently did not reach out to the Postal Service. But I did. And to my surprise, I was informed the postmark is not the only way to determine when a letter was mailed. The Postal Service applies a phosphorescent bar code to the backs of most of the envelopes it handles, said Stephen Doherty, a USPS spokesman. That bar code can be fed into a computer to produce the dates when the letter was processed, he said.

    “This could provide some additional information that could possibly be helpful” to Dodek, Doherty said.

    At my urging, Dodek asked Fidelity for a photocopy of the back of the envelope. On Friday afternoon, a Fidelity representative from the company’s mail facility in Cincinnati called Dodek with more bad news: The envelope had been destroyed.

    The Fidelity rep said the company’s protocol is to mail the original envelope back to the customer when a check is rejected for a deadline violation. The rep said she couldn’t explain why Fidelity in Dodek’s case sent a blurry photocopy instead. (A Fidelity spokesman later contradicted the Cincinnati representative by telling me the company’s protocol is to mail customers only photocopies of envelopes.)

    The trouble with the photocopy sent to Dodek is that the front of the envelope is pretty clear, but the back of the envelope, if that is what is represented in the photocopy, is totally unreadable, and the lower one-third of it is not shown at all. Doherty said the Postal Service needs something better than the photocopy I obtained from Dodek to check for the phosphorescent bar code.

    “This whole experience has been frustrating,” Dodek said. “Maybe it can serve as a warning to your readers.”

    Dodek, whose retirement is in the not-too-distant future, is open to criticism for cutting things too close. She mailed the check, headed for Ohio, on a Saturday, April 14. No mail on Sunday. Monday, which would normally have been the filing deadline, was a Washington, D.C., holiday — Emancipation Day — moving the deadline to Tuesday, April 17.

    Some obvious advice: Don’t wait until the last minute when mailing your IRA check.

    Second piece of advice: Electronic bank transfers (as opposed to paper checks) mean never having to put a postmark under a magnifying glass.

    And third: If you insist on writing a check, spend an extra $1.40 at the post office for a “certificate of mailing.” That way you will have proof — in computer-generated, perfectly legible script — of the date you mailed it.

    Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.