It’s Tax Day for most Americans, which is the deadline to pay off any income taxes owed and either submit a tax return or file an extension to get six extra months to file a 2021 return.
But, chances are, if you’ve turned in your return by now and have a refund coming, you’re anxiously awaiting the cash.
As of earlier this month, the Internal Revenue Service says it’s sent refunds to 70 million households for an average $3,175. That payoff increased by basically 10% from the same point last year, which is likely due to pandemic-related tax provisions that are coming into play now.
How to check on the status of your refund
Here’s a quick refresh on what do next. The IRS has a ‘Where’s My Refund’ portal that will show the refund wending through the IRS.
Within 24 hours of the receipt of an electronically-filed return — the strongly recommended way to file taxes — the portal starts showing a refund’s processing status. If the return is mailed in, it will take a month before the portal will pick up the refund’s status.
To check their refund status, taxpayers need to supply their Social Security number or their Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. They need to also put in their filing status and the refund’s exact amount. (The refund amount can be found on Line 35a in a Form 1040.)
The portal, which can also be accessed through IRS2Go app, shows a three-stage process that starts with receipt, then approval, then ends with a confirmation the refund has been sent, including a date when the money should show in an account. Refund status is updated once, typically overnight, so constant re-checks during the day will only increase a person’s stress level.
Here’s the portal for checking the status of refunds coming from amended returns. Taxpayers who have a refund coming on their state income taxes should check the website of their state’s tax authority to see if it offers a refund tracking tool.
The IRS says it generally turns around refunds within 21 days of receipt, but Charles Rettig, the tax agency’s commissioner, recently said some taxpayers have been getting their 2021 refunds in a matter of days.
What to do if you think your refund is late
That’s the easy part. But what if it’s been more than 21 days and the refund is still in limbo inside an IRS that’s juggling this year’s tax season while it’s still trying to clear a backlog of last year’s tax returns?
There could be a couple hang-ups. There may be errors or open questions in the return, like discrepancies between what the taxpayer and the IRS determination on what’s owed for the rest of the 2021 child tax credit or a third-round stimulus check. The IRS says other delays could include an incomplete return, specialized claims, or questions about identity theft or fraud.
Why calling the IRS may not help much
If a taxpayer can get through to an IRS customer representative, the IRS says they will not be able to quicken the process. “Unless Where’s My Refund? directs you to call us, our representatives will not be able to provide any additional information,” the IRS says. “If Where’s My Refund? says that we’re still processing your return, our representatives won’t be able to give you a specific refund date.”
If that sounds underwhelming, you’re not alone.
The tools do not get into the specifics about what’s delaying a person’s return and more details would be “a big step forward,” according to a report from Erin Collins, the IRS’s National Taxpayer Advocate. In a record flood of phone calls last year, IRS customer service reps were able to speak with taxpayers 11% of the time, Collins said earlier this year.
Treasury Department officials say the panoply of taxpayer gripes about the IRS — including backlogs and unanswered phones — are the product of years of “chronic underfunding” for the agency. The Biden administration is pushing for Congress to earmark $80 billion in the next decade for the agency.
On Monday, Rettig emphasized all the refunds the IRS has been able to churn out, along with three rounds of stimulus checks and six installments of child tax credit advances. Still, he acknowledged in a blog post, “we also know that this has been a season of frustration for many people, including those still waiting for us to process their tax returns from last year, those who filed amended returns, those who face delays and those who tried calling our phone lines and faced long wait times—if they could get through at all.”
That’s “frustrating for all of us at the IRS as well” and highlighted the capacity of agency that’s been “stretched thin,” he said.
“If you’re frustrated by poor customer service from the IRS, you have years and years of Republican cuts that have contributed mightily to the ability of the agency to meet your expectations,” Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, who chairs the Senate’s Finance Committee, said at hearing earlier this month.
Don’t point fingers at the GOP, said Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, the committee’s ranking Republican. “This is not a funding issue. Solutions to these challenges have existed for years, but to-date have not been implemented,” he said at the same hearing.
Whenever the refund money shows up, it’s up to taxpayers how to use it. Here are some ideas: pay down debts, put it towards emergency savings, save for retirement, buy I-bonds or put it towards cryptocurrency.