IRS' massive backlog continues to delay millions of refunds for Americans

IRS' massive backlog continues to delay millions of refunds for Americans
IRS' massive backlog continues to delay millions of refunds for Americans

Millions of Americans are still waiting for their tax refunds to show up in their mailboxes or bank accounts months after rushing to meet the May 17 deadline.

And for some, the wait may go on for a long time to come. As of early September, the IRS was still processing 8.5 million individual returns.

In a typical year, the tax agency takes about three weeks to process returns and pay refunds. But this is hardly the typical year. Even an advocacy group created to help taxpayers has been paralyzed by the backlog.

If you’ve been counting on a quick turnaround on your refund to help cover household expenses or pay down debt, you may need to seek out other options.

How long you may have to wait

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The IRS hasn't been able to keep up for a number of pandemic-related reasons: a workforce shortage, technology gaps and a backlog of unprocessed paper returns from 2019.

The agency says it has processed all error-free returns received before April, but it’s still working on the ones that need to be manually reviewed due to mistakes.

In some cases, the IRS says it may take up to 120 days to issue refunds because it is having to correct “significantly more errors on tax returns than in previous years.”

Many of those errors are related to the expanded child credit, missing information or suspected identity theft or fraud.

Returns are processed in the order they are received, says the IRS, which is trying to minimize delays by rerouting returns and taxpayer correspondence from facilities that are behind to ones where more staff is available.

Where can you get help?

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The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS), an independent office established within the IRS to help taxpayers resolve problems, can be a source of help. The group, however, is lumbering through a backlog of its own.

“Due to the high volume of calls and cases we have been receiving, we have struggled to meet our own deadlines and expectations,” National Taxpayer Advocate Erin M. Collins says in a recent blog post.

The TAS says its workload has increased by over 50% over the past five years — a result of higher caseloads, a smaller budget and reduced staff. This year it is expecting 253,000 cases, compared with 167,000 in 2017.

If you’ve tried to call the office for help, you’ve likely felt the logjam. Taxpayers, on average, are having to wait 80 minutes before reaching a representative.

That level of service is “unacceptable, especially for a function intended to be the safety net for taxpayers,” Collins says.

What else can you do if the IRS still owes you money?

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Collins, for one, offers little advice to consumers other than to be patient.

“Our goal is to improve our response time, completion dates and ability to assist taxpayers, but we ask for your understanding as we work through our backlog and resume providing the high levels of service that taxpayers deserve,” she says.

The IRS encourages taxpayers to look up their personalized refund status by checking the “Where’s My Refund” tool on its website. You can also view your account.

If you filed electronically and received an acknowledgement, you don’t need to take further action. And it won’t help to file your taxes a second time. But if the IRS reaches out with a question or request for additional information, don’t dilly dally with your response.

Collins says that during the past year, her office has streamlined procedures to help move cases through the system. The service’s Low Income Taxpayer Clinics have also been allowed to help prepare returns so taxpayers can receive stimulus checks and child tax credit payments.

If your income has fallen during the pandemic, you may qualify for free or low-cost help from one of these clinics, which typically assist with IRS tax disputes, like audits and appeals.

What if you need help immediately?

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The average 2020 tax refund amounts to $2,827, and many Americans are relying on that money to help with bills or pay down credit card debt that’s been growing since the start of the pandemic.

If you can’t wait for your refund, there are other steps you can take to free up some cash.

  • Some car insurers are offering customers a break if they aren’t driving as much as they did before the pandemic. If yours won’t budge, shop around for a better deal.

  • If you’re a renter, over $46 billion was set aside to help Americans behind on their rent because of pandemic-related job losses, layoffs and wage cuts — and most of that money is still available.

  • If you’re a homeowner, refinancing your mortgage at today’s low rates and finding a better price on your homeowners insurance can easily save you hundreds a year.

  • High-interest credit card debt can quickly become overwhelming. A lower-interest debt consolidation loan can help you slash your interest costs and pay off your debts faster.

  • Make sure you’re not overpaying when you shop online. You can download a free browser extension that will scour the web for better prices and coupons before you check out.

  • It might be hard to imagine, but generating extra income through the stock market can be affordable and easy. One popular app allows you to invest your "spare change," turning pennies into a diversified portfolio.

This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.