You’ve paid your dues to Uncle Sam, and now it’s “show me the money” time when you file your taxes and complete the paperwork to get your refund. It’s likely that you already have a plan for your hard-earned refund money, and it’s time for the government to pay up. The least the government can do for borrowing your taxed money all year is to send your refund on time, right?
In most cases, that’s true. The Internal Revenue Service reports that it issues refunds to 90% of taxpayers within 21 days. For a sluggish government agency that’s notoriously tight on cash, that’s not too shabby. But there are cases where your money is held up in red tape for far longer than that. Depending on the problem it could be your fault or the government’s, but either way it could delay your refund by several weeks.
In most situations, you can check the status of your refund with the “Where’s My Refund?” tool set up by the IRS. “There aren’t any secret tricks to checking on the status of a refund. Using IRS.gov is the best way for taxpayers to get the latest information,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. You can check this tool within 24 hours of submitting your tax return electronically, or within four weeks if you mailed in a paper return.
If it’s been three weeks and you still haven’t seen your refund check, you can call an IRS representative for further explanation. Don’t bother calling before then; the wait times are astronomical and you’ll just be told to check online and wait until three weeks have passed. If you’re wondering what the holdup is, it could be one of these issues.
1. You filed a paper tax return
You should have noticed that the “Where’s My Refund?” tool kicks in after four weeks if you’ve mailed in a paper form, instead of joining about 80% of taxpayers who file their returns online. “Snail mail” got its nickname for a reason, after all. It takes longer for the IRS to receive your paperwork in the first place, and it can take up to six weeks from the time you mailed in your forms to receive a check, TurboTax reports. That’s compared to about half that time if you file electronically.
“Paper returns must be entered into the computer by hand, so it takes them much longer to process,” Lee E. Holland, accountant, certified financial planner, and former IRS agent told TurboTax.
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of being eligible for e-filed tax returns. If you’re filing for an adoption credit or showing you’re a power of attorney, for example, you’ll most likely be required to complete a paper return or at least mail in additional documents to support your e-filed return, and be required to wait the extra time for your refund as a result.
2. You chose to receive a paper check instead of direct deposit
A majority of taxpayers choose to have their refund deposited directly into their bank accounts, making the refund process more automatic and much faster than relying on the IRS to issue the checks and pass the baton off to the Postal Service to transport it to your mailbox.
However, even direct deposit returns can pose a problem, if you make a mistake entering the information. “A simple mistake in the routing or account number can delay a refund for weeks or even months,” Holland told TurboTax. All the information on your tax return is important, but triple check your direct deposit information. The IRS will eventually issue you a paper check when your bank rejects the direct deposit, but all of that will delay putting the money in your pocket where it belongs.
3. You made simple paperwork errors
Everyone thinks they’ve filed their tax returns perfectly, but simple errors on your tax return can delay the refund process if you’re not careful. An incomplete form is one of the fastest ways to get your return into the slow refund lane at the IRS, so make sure all of the boxes are correctly checked and filled out. If you’ve forgotten your dependent’s Social Security number and make a mental note to look it up before sending in the return, for example, make sure you actually go back and fill out that information. In addition, entering your own Social Security number incorrectly can trigger a significant delay.
Math errors are also common on tax returns, not necessarily because your calculator is broken but because the tax code is a tricky thing to master. It’s not unheard of to miscalculate the amount of taxable Social Security income or to factor in the tax credits for each of your children. Still, errors on your forms mean an IRS agent needs to manually correct and review the paperwork, which adds time to the amount you’ll wait for your refund.
If you’re filing your taxes using an e-file software, or have a tax preparer helping you, most of these issues should be avoided. But if you want to double check or are filing your taxes on your own, check out a list of common mistakes the IRS sees, in order to avoid them at all cost.
4. You have unusual deductions
Your mother might have told you you’re special, but in terms of your tax filings, in most cases your return should look similar to everyone else’s. The numbers will be slightly different, but in most cases your return will fall into similar parameters compared to other people in your tax bracket.
When returns are filed electronically, the IRS has certain benchmarks for deduction amounts and other items. It doesn’t disclose what those are, Zacks Investment Research reports, but if your deductions are extremely high compared to the benchmark, your return will likely be flagged for a manual review. Anything that requires extra review automatically takes more time, and in some cases the IRS might even contact you for additional documentation of your deductions that warrant an unusually high return.
If you realize your tax return is abnormal compared to other years (or your tax preparer suggests it is), you might want to think about filing a paper return and including that supporting documentation up front, Zacks suggests.
5. You need to amend your tax return
With all the tax laws and rules out there, it’s not totally surprising if you’ve filed your taxes on your own and missed a potential deduction or made an error. While the IRS can automatically adjust calculations for you, in some cases you might need to file an amended tax return.
Amended returns can take up to 16 weeks to process once the IRS receives it, the agency reports. If you are amending a return because you believe the government owes you more money, the IRS suggests waiting to file the amendment until after you receive your initial refund. That way, you can spend that money as you have already planned, and wait for the balance at a later date. Amended refunds take much longer to receive, but you can start tracking them three weeks after you mail in the amended forms.
If you are amending your tax return because you owe more money, however, you’ll want to file before the tax deadline if possible. This will help you avoid any penalties or fees for late filing.
6. Part of your refund is being withheld
If you’ve been delinquent in other charges throughout the year, your refund could be delayed while the government takes off a chunk of it. For example, if you have been ordered to pay child support but have refused to do so, the Federal Tax Refund Offset Program takes part of the refund you’re owed and puts it toward those late payments.
“Unpaid child support, federal agency debt, outstanding student loans, back state income tax – any of these things could offset the refund,” Brian Ashcraft, director of operations for Liberty Tax, told U.S. News and World Report. “But if it does, you’ll be notified.”
7. You’re a victim of identity theft
If someone else has already attempted to file taxes using your Social Security number, getting your tax return might suddenly be the least of your worries. However, rectifying the problem will almost guarantee a more complicated and slower refund process.
In the case of identity theft or fraud, at least you’ll get a red flag when you first attempt to file your tax return. “If there’s an issue of identity theft, in most cases, you’ll know when you attempt to file your return,” Melissa Labant, director of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants tax staff, told U.S. News and World Report. “The IRS won’t allow you to file your return because another one has been filed under your Social Security number.”
According to one report by the Treasury Inspector General, the IRS can take up to nine months to resolve tax accounts and give refunds for people who are victims of identity theft. Of course, you’ll also want to be checking in with other agencies to repair any other financial damage you might have suffered in the process.