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When You Should (and Shouldn't) Worry If Your Tax Refund Is Delayed

Molly McCluskey
When You Should (and Shouldn't) Worry If Your Tax Refund Is Delayed

The April 15 income tax filing deadline is just around the corner, but many taxpayers decided not to wait until the last minute to file. Those who opted against procrastination and are entitled to a refund may have already received it. But for those anxiously awaiting a check in the mail or a sum deposited directly into their bank account, the wait can be fraught with worry.

After all, a delayed refund can mean more than waiting a few extra days for your cash -- it can signal problems with your return. So when should you give worrying a rest, and when is there real cause for concern?

Where's My Return?

According to the IRS, refund information is available as soon as 24 hours after an e-filed return is received, while the status on a mailed return takes about three to four weeks. The IRS's Where's My Refund? tool is popular with taxpayers wanting to check on their return. In fact, it's so popular that the tool has been known to get jammed by eager taxpayers checking on their returns several times a day.

By early March, the website and mobile app had received more than 179 million hits, although the IRS has only processed 72 million tax returns by roughly the same period. An incredible backlog isn't to blame for the disparity. It's the result of people making multiple visits per day.

"Where's My Refund? is the quickest and easiest way for taxpayers to get important information about their tax refund," IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a statement this month. "Taxpayers need to remember that the Where's My Refund? system is updated every 24 hours, usually overnight, so there's no need to check more than once a day."

Repeat: There's no need to check it more than once a day.

"We're starting to get on the tail end of it, but the early-season filers are blowing up the IRS with Where's My Refund?" says Brian Ashcraft, director of operations for Liberty Tax. "But the IRS recently announced that more than 90 percent of refunds are being issued in less than 21 days." The only question that remains, he says, is "what's the issue with the remaining 10?"

Ashcraft says there are a number of reasons a refund could be delayed, any of which are a legitimate cause for concern. "Incomplete or glaring errors on the return could do it, or they could get an additional IRS review," he says. "Certain returns are flagged, or if your return has been impacted by identity theft or fraud."

But Melissa Labant, director of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants tax staff, says taxpayers will know that's an issue long before they go to check the status of their refund. "If there's an issue of identity theft, in most cases, you'll know when you attempt to file your return," she says. "The IRS won't allow you to file your return because another one has been filed under your Social Security number."

Earlier in the tax season, some TurboTax customers encountered this sort of fraud when they attempted to file a state return, only to discover one had already been filed with their information.

The holdup with your tax refund could also be an issue of withholding.

"Unpaid child support, federal agency debt, outstanding student loans, back state income tax -- any of these things could offset the refund," Ashcraft says. "But if it does, you'll be notified."

Before you assume the worst, remember a few things: The IRS is short-staffed, most Americans are filing their returns in April and sometimes a delay is just a delay.

"With the recent budget cuts at the IRS, it may simply take longer to process everyone's returns," Labant says.

When to Take Action

If you haven't heard anything three weeks after of filing your return, it's time to check in with the IRS.

"After 21 days, that would be the only time you'd realize that something didn't go through as normal," Ashcraft says, "and you can talk to an IRS representative."

If a month goes by and you haven't heard anything, visit the Where's My Refund? page for more information. If your refund has been lost, you can request a replacement check if it has been more than 28 days from when your refund was mailed.

And keep in mind there's always the possibility that a minor error is holding things up.

"It's not always 'the sky's falling' if you didn't get your refund," Ashcraft says. "Sometimes, you just didn't fill it out properly."

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