Chances are you’ve gotten your third stimulus check by now, but you may still be waiting on that other chunk of change the IRS owes you: your tax refund.
The IRS is sitting on a backlog of 29 million returns that require manual processing, which basically means that a human needs to review it.
To be clear, most taxpayers who e-file have their returns processed and receive their refunds within 21 days, according to the IRS. But if you’re still waiting and wondering “where is my tax refund?”, here’s what’s going on and how you can track it.
Why You Haven’t Received Your Tax Refund
The 2020 tax season has been an especially complicated one for IRS staff and accountants.
As of March, the IRS still had a backlog of more than 2 million returns from 2019. Most of them are leftover returns filed by mail that piled up last year when most IRS offices were temporarily shuttered due to COVID-19.
But on top of that, there are a number of complexities created by the three stimulus bills, the most recent of which passed in the middle of tax season. On top of the usual tax season mayhem, the IRS was tasked with delivering the third stimulus check. Plus, tax season started 16 days later than usual this year. These challenges prompted the IRS to extend the tax deadline to May 17.
For example, people who typically qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, a credit for low- and middle-income working families, may not have been eligible in 2020 due to expanded unemployment benefits. The $900 billion stimulus package that passed in December changed the rules to allow families to use 2019 income to qualify instead of 2020 income.
However, the IRS didn’t have time to update its programs to reflect this change, so if you’re seeking the Earned Income Tax Credit based on 2019’s income, an IRS employee will need to manually review it.
The same applies if you qualify for stimulus money from the first two checks based on your 2020 return that you didn’t qualify for based on your 2019 or 2018 return. For example, if your 2019 income was higher than your 2020 income, you may qualify for more stimulus money. Or if you had a child in 2020, you’d get stimulus credits on their behalf. These situations also require a manual review.
But your tax refund could also be delayed for all the reasons that would apply in a normal year. For example, if your refund was sent to a bank account that you’ve since closed, the IRS will eventually cut you a paper check, but that adds to the wait time. If someone fraudulently filed a tax return in your name to steal your refund, the IRS will think that you’ve already filed and reject it. Your refund will also be delayed if you made an error or your return was incomplete.
If you owe certain types of debt like child support or back taxes, the IRS could take your refund and use it to offset what you owe.
Paper returns require manual processing, so if you’ve filed by paper, expect a long wait, even if there are no issues with your return. The IRS is urging taxpayers who have yet to submit their returns to file online instead of by mail.
If you made an error that requires an amended return, your tax season will be even more prolonged. The IRS will notify you of the error by mail, and you’ll have to send in Form 1040X. There’s only one way to do this: by mail. Then, your amended return will be added to the 29 million-plus unprocessed returns.
What to Do if You’re Still Waiting
The first step is to make sure the IRS has actually received your return.
You can track your return using the Where’s My Refund feature on the IRS website or the IRS2Go app. You’ll need to provide your Social Security number, filing status and your exact refund amount.
But these tools have limited usefulness. If your return has been processed, they tell you when your refund is scheduled for deposit, but they don’t provide information about why a return is still being processed or whether you need to provide additional information, which prompted recent criticism from the Taxpayer Advocate Service.
If you filed electronically, you should be able to see whether the IRS has accepted your return within 24 hours. If the IRS has accepted your return, that just means it has confirmed it received it. The IRS still has to process it.
If you sent a paper return, you can expect a long wait before you can confirm that the IRS even has your return. Even in normal circumstances, tracking a paper return can take about four weeks.
The IRS says its staff will help you research the status of your refund only if you filed electronically more than three weeks ago or sent it by mail at least six weeks ago, or if Where’s My Refund tells you to get in touch.
Considering that the IRS has only answered about 7% of individual taxpayer phone calls to date, it’s pretty tough to talk to a human. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets through to a human, they probably won’t be able to give you much information. The IRS systems don’t tell employees who handle phone calls why a return required manual processing. But if you want to try, the number for checking the status of a refund is 800-829-1954.
What to Do if You Haven’t Filed Yet
The big takeaway if you haven’t filed yet: Filing electronically is the way to go. There are plenty of easy-to-use tax software options, many of which have free versions.
Not only will you get your refund faster, but you’re also less likely to make errors that could result in further delays because the software is doing the math for you. Additionally, filing electronically is more secure than putting all that personal information in an envelope.
And of course, the sooner you file, the better. It usually takes longer to get your refund as Tax Day approaches, so stop delaying and block off time for a date with your tax software of choice.
Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She writes the Dear Penny personal finance advice column. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected]