Where's my tax refund?


It's easy to search for your tax refund on the IRS website. See more income tax pictures.
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You crunched the numbers, followed the prompts and clicked your mouse. With glee, you realize that some of your hard-earned cash will be heading back home in the form of a highly coveted federal tax refund. With visions of big screen TVs and new-car down payments dancing in your head, you check your online bank account (or mailbox if you're getting a check) for the reappearance of those beloved dollars that the government absconded with over the course of the previous 12 months.

OK ... now, a couple weeks have passed. Where's the tax refund? Should you be worried yet?

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Probably not. The average electronic refund takes about three weeks, so wait that long before getting concerned. Thanks to the vastly more efficient electronic age, the IRS is able to quickly and accurately funnel tax refunds into individual and business bank accounts. But occasionally, a snag slows down the process, leading to moderate delays.

One common snafu is the failure on the part of the person or business to include all pertinent information when filing, which means the agency has to follow up with them. Other accidental inaccuracies, like an incorrect social security number or date of birth, can also lead to hiccups in the refund process, so take the advice of your grade school teachers and double-check all your work before turning it in. Above all else, be extra careful when entering your account information, lest the IRS accidentally send a windfall into someone else's account.

Also, bear in mind that the agency is slammed with tax returns in the final days leading up to the April 15 deadline, so refunds can take longer to process if you file late. Tax season is definitely friendlier to early birds than it is to procrastinators!

However, if the refund seems unreasonably delayed you can easily track it through the IRS website. Keep reading for more information about how the process works, in addition to tips for keeping tabs on your moolah.

Understanding the Process

No matter whether you use old-fashioned pen and paper or rapid-fire e-file, your refund can be designated to return to you via direct deposit to a bank account or as a paper check. Funds can also be placed into an individual retirement account (IRA) or used to buy U.S. Series I Savings Bonds. The IRS also allows taxpayers to split refunds into up to three accounts, so consider that option if you have multiple savings, checking or retirement balances. You will need an Allocation of Refund form to have your refund split, however.

By and large, the fastest route to (moderate) riches is to e-file your return and request a direct deposit refund. People who file electronically can expect a direct deposit refund within 10 to 21 calendar days of sending, or about a month if they've requested a paper check [source: USA.gov]. Returns submitted by paper are usually handled within six to eight weeks after landing in the IRS office [source: IRS]. However you file and request your refund, the vast majority of tax payers will see their money sooner than later. The IRS says it processes 90 percent of tax refunds in fewer than 21 days.

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Sadly for some, just because your return shows a specific refund, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll be getting your due. People with outstanding debt have their refunds "offset" to pay back bills like state income tax obligations, owed child support and federal agency non-tax debts, among other charges. The Department of Treasury's Bureau of Fiscal Service (BFS) will typically issue a letter explaining why and how much of your refund was reallocated to existing debt [source: IRS].

Show Me the Money!

Think of all the things you can buy with your tax refund!
Think of all the things you can buy with your tax refund!
Liudmila Sundikova/Hemera/Thinstock

Back in the day, you could wait weeks or months before getting your refund check, and it wasn't that easy to find out about it. You had to wait on the phone for a long time before you got an answer from a customer service rep. Fortunately, it's quite easy to check on your refund status now.

First, wait at least 24 hours after filing electronically, or four weeks after filing a paper return, and then log on to the IRS's Where's My Refund? site. The tool allows you to easily track your refund's progress through three simple stages (return received, refund approved, refund sent). A refund date will also be listed once the return has been completely processed. The site updates once every 24 hours. The IRS also offers the handy, free mobile app IRS2Go, which contains the same information. In addition, feel free to visit IRS.gov. All of these options are available 'round the clock.

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If you made a mistake on your initial filing and had to submit an amended return, it'll probably be closer to 12 weeks before the refund is processed. Check the status of these returns via the appropriately named Where's My Amended Return? tool, but keep in mind that it can take as many as three weeks to even show up in the system.

If the IRS made an error when depositing your refund, they will handle correcting and redistributing the money. To get the ball rolling, simply pick up the telephone and call 800-829-1040 Monday through Friday. The agency will also take steps to replace any checks that have been lost or stolen, and explain any differences in refund. For example, if your refund is more or less than you were expecting, the IRS will send you a notice detailing the difference, along with instructions on how to proceed [source: IRS].

U.S. taxpayers living outside the country can call the international taxpayer service call center with any issues on outstanding or incorrect refunds. IRS agents are also on staff at the U.S. embassies in London, Paris, Frankfurt and Beijing.

Author's Note: Where's my tax refund?

Getting a tax refund is like playing roulette and winning big! If we're so lucky this year I plan to spring for a pony. Just kidding – it will likely be something far more sensible, like a new dishwasher.

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Sources

  • IRS. "IRS Refund Information Guidelines for the Tax Preparation Community." 2014. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p2043en.pdf
  • IRS. "Question: How can I ensure my refund is deposited as I designate?" 2014. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.irs.gov/Help-&-Resources/Tools-&-FAQs/FAQs-for-Individuals/Frequently-Asked-Tax-Questions-&-Answers/IRS-Procedures/Refund-Inquiries/Refund-Inquiries-19
  • IRS. "Topic 152: Refund Information." 2014. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc152.html
  • IRS. "Topic 203: Refund Offsets ..." 2014. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc203.html
  • IRS. "What if I entered the correct ..." 2014. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.irs.gov/Help-&-Resources/Tools-&-FAQs/FAQs-for-Individuals/Frequently-Asked-Tax-Questions-&-Answers/IRS-Procedures/Refund-Inquiries/Refund-Inquiries-20
  • IRS. "Question: What is a split refund?" 2014. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.irs.gov/Help-&-Resources/Tools-&-FAQs/FAQs-for-Individuals/Frequently-Asked-Tax-Questions-&-Answers/IRS-Procedures/Refund-Inquiries/Refund-Inquiries-3
  • IRS. "Where's My Amended Return?" 2014. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.irs.gov/Filing/Individuals/Amended-Returns-(Form-1040-X)/Wheres-My-Amended-Return-1
  • Rosen, Elizabeth. "When Will I Get My State Tax Refund?" U.S. Tax Center. Feb. 21, 2014. (Oct. 27, 2014) http://www.irs.com/articles/state-tax-refund-arrival-date
  • USA.gov. "Check Your Federal Tax Refund Status." Oct. 15, 2014. (Oct. 29, 2014) http://answers.usa.gov/system/templates/selfservice/USAGov/#!portal/1012/article/3510/Check-Federal-Tax-Refund-Status