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Many wait for tax refunds as the IRS tries to finish with stimulus checks

Doug Whiteman
Many wait for tax refunds as the IRS tries to finish with stimulus checks

The IRS' monthslong process of getting $1,200 coronavirus stimulus checks (and direct deposits and debit cards) into the hands of Americans has been getting all the attention, but the tax agency also is supposed to be sending out tax refunds.

Many taxpayers who filed their taxes weeks or even months ago say they're still waiting for money they're owed, and they haven't been able to reach anyone on the phone.

"These delays would create hardships for taxpayers in the best of times, but they are especially damaging in this current economic crisis," says Virginia Democratic Congresswoman Elaine Luria, in a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig.

The refund holdup is related to the pandemic, and it could be a while longer before it's resolved.

The problem is centered around paper tax returns

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The slowdown is plaguing Americans who filed their tax returns on paper forms, instead of electronically.

"The IRS is not currently able to process individual paper returns," the agency says in a June 8 update, explaining that its tax centers around the U.S. remain closed until further notice because of COVID-19 concerns.

The tax agency also has been busy lately with getting out those stimulus checks. More than 159 million "economic impact payments" have been distributed, totaling about $267 billion, says the IRS, which is trying to reach people who've been missed so it can wrap up that effort.

Since April, officials have been urging taxpayers to file electronically, "to support social distancing and speed the processing of tax returns, refunds and payments." Paper returns won't be dealt with until the IRS processing centers reopen — and there's been no word on when that might happen.

The agency also warns that live assistance by telephone is "extremely limited" because of the closures. If you're determined to call and potentially spend hours on hold, be sure to download an app that'll allow you to make money taking surveys and watching videos as you sit praying that someone will pick up sometime.

Taxpayers are being directed to resources on the IRS website where they might find information they're looking for.

What to do if your refund is late

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One of those resources is the IRS "Check My Refund Status" tool, which may be able to tell you where your money is.

The IRS says it has already processed about 90.6 million tax refunds this year averaging $2,770 each.

Recipients may have used the money to cover expenses, pay down debt, make splurge purchases, or maybe buy something practical, like life insurance.

The number of refunds is down from about 103.6 million at this time last year, but returns submitted to the tax agency are lagging, too — because taxpayers have been given more time to file. The usual April 15 deadline has been extended to July 15 this year due to the coronavirus crisis.

If you've filed using a paper return and have been waiting, waiting, waiting for your refund, basically all you can do is wait some more until the IRS is able to process the paper forms again.

But the agency says whatever you do, don't file your taxes a second time, and don't write to the IRS to ask about the status of your return. What's implied is that you won't get anywhere.

In her letter, Congresswoman Luria says many IRS employees are doing the best job they can using antiquated equipment — but that's not good enough.

"Taxpayers are counting on prompt receipt of their refunds to help make ends meet in this time of economic uncertainty," she writes.