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Something really confuses me about the whole legal aspect of confirming you sent someone mail.

USPS has different types of mail (e.g. Certified Mail) for "proving" you sent your mail (e.g. tax returns).
(Note: This question is not specific to tax returns. I'm just using that as an illustrative example.)

My question is, (how) does this prove anything about what you actually sent?

I could very well just stuff an envelope with empty pieces of paper (or, more plausibly, something totally irrelevant that is likely to be discarded) and mail it to some address, then get every kind of confirmation possible for it from the post office. And then claim that I sent some important piece of mail (say, my tax returns, or a contract, or some other legally important document).

And when court day comes, I'll have all the "proof" I could possibly have from USPS for it, yet I clearly didn't need to actually do what I claimed.

So my question is, whether these mail certifications actually mean anything in a court?
If they do, then why or how -- clearly I didn't need to send what I claimed?
If not, then why do people need to use them for legal documents? What useful thing does it establish?

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You appear to be conflating two different legal concepts: evidence and proof.

evidence something that furnishes proof: testimony; specifically: something legally submitted to a tribunal to ascertain the truth of a matter

proof the cogency of evidence that compels acceptance by the mind of a truth or a fact

So evidence is presented to a tribunal who will then decide if that evidence meets the required burden of proof.

In a civil matter the burden of proof is met on the preponderance of evidence (in a criminal matter the burden is beyond reasonable doubt) and the onus of proof rests with the person making the allegation. Preponderance is based on the more convincing evidence and its probable truth or accuracy, and not on the amount of evidence. Thus, one clearly knowledgeable witness may provide a preponderance of evidence over a dozen witnesses with hazy testimony, or a signed agreement with definite terms may outweigh opinions or speculation about what the parties intended.

Certified mail is evidence (very strong evidence) that something was mailed and delivered. It is, as you rightly point out not evidence of what it contained.

So let's follow through with your IRS hypothetical:

No Certified Mail

  1. The IRS alledges that you did not file your tax return - they have the burden of proof.
  2. As evidence, they put forward an affidavit that no return was filed.
  3. You put forward an affidavit that you did file a return.

The judge considers the evidence and (probably) gives more veracity to the IRS's affidavit than yours - the IRS have met their burden of proof.

Certified Mail 1

  1. The IRS alledges that you did not file your tax return - they have the burden of proof.
  2. As evidence, they put forward an affidavit that no return was filed.
  3. You put forward an affidavit that you did file a return and the proof of delivery from the USPS.

The judge considers the evidence and (probably) considers that the IRS has recieved something from you: if it wasn't a tax return then they were in a position to give evidence as to what it was, and they didn't - given that it is the IRS that is obliged to prove that what they receieved wasn't a tax return, the IRS have not met their burden of proof.

Certified Mail 2

  1. The IRS alledges that you did not file your tax return - they have the burden of proof.
  2. As evidence, they put forward an affidavit that no return was filed but they did recieve an envelope stuffed with newspaper clippings and here they are.
  3. You put forward an affidavit that you did file a return and the proof of delivery from the USPS and you have no idea how they changed from a tax return to newspaper clippings in transit.

The judge considers the evidence and (probably) gives more veracity to the IRS's affidavit than yours - the IRS have met their burden of proof.

  • +1 This basically means that to legally cover your rear, you ("you" being some party of interest here, like the IRS or some corporation) have to keep records of every single piece of mail you ever receive, even if it's completely junk or seems irrelevant, right? – Mehrdad Nov 29 '16 at 1:59
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    @Mehrdad and I have no doubt the IRS does so – Dale M Nov 29 '16 at 11:33
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    The IRS will most likely keep a record, because receiving an envelope full of newspaper clippings is quite unusual, and an IRS employee would likely sense trouble ahead. – gnasher729 Sep 13 '17 at 20:09
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There are a few things that you prove with USPS evidence. Proof of mailing, proof of delivery and proof of receipt by an appropriate person.

A certificate of mailing or certified mail provides proof of delivery (of something) from a reliable third party source.

There is a service that can provide proof of delivery without a signature by the postman that provides proof of delivery.

And, certified mail, return receipt requested provides proof of receipt assuming that the person who signed for it was really allowed to do so and not some random bystander (which might not be your fault anyway).

Registered mail has an insurance component that compensates you if the item is lost or damaged en route and is used only for things that have intrinsic value (e.g. original paintings).

Proof of transmission is not the entire task. Ideally, you would photocopy or photograph what you are sending together with the envelope, attach a receipt from the post office showing mailing, delivery or receipt as the case may be (different circumstances require proof of different things), and the initials or signature of the person sending it. If you showed a pattern and practice of always doing this, it would be even more convincing. If you got to court the person sending it would fill out an affidavit and if it was a regular practice of an office, a hearsay exception would apply and testimony of the sender wouldn't be necessary.

Better yet, you would deliver something electronically and have a third party email or efiling computer system receipt that includes a copy of what you sent (most fax machines have a similar verification of sending report function).

  • You need to be careful with electronic transmission- validity varies by jurisdiction. For example, case law in Australia is that email is received by a corporation when the message is downloaded (even if it ends up in a spam folder) but by an individual only when accessed. Similarly, files in third party storage (e.g. Dropbox, One Drive) are received when downloaded, not when the link arrives but email attachments are received when the email is. – Dale M Sep 13 '17 at 21:01

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