Q&A: Where’s my refund?

Dear Liz: I filed a paper 2019 federal tax return in mid-February. It’s been more than nine weeks, and they haven’t electronically deposited my refund yet. Last week, I called the “Where’s My Refund” IRS number and got an automated response that basically they couldn’t help me. I then called the taxpayer advocate number listed in the IRS booklet, and they couldn’t help me but transferred me to the IRS’ toll-free number. After taking my information, the service person couldn’t find my return and suggested I resubmit my forms. The whole process took over two hours. Then my brother told me IRS offices are closed or have limited staff and they aren’t processing the tax returns. Why don’t they just say that at the beginning of all of their messages, instead of saying you should get it within six weeks of filing?

Answer: Over the last decade, Congress has cut the IRS’ budget by more than 20% after factoring in inflation, even as the population grew and tax law got ever more complicated. The agency was limping along with ancient technology and too few people to help the public even before the pandemic sent most of its workers home, without the ability to telecommute.

The agency has been trying to recall its workforce as quickly as it can, but there is a truly massive backlog of paper returns that has yet to be processed. Sending out stimulus relief checks has taken priority, and that Herculean effort is still in process.

You may be frustrated by what you perceive as poor customer service, but this situation didn’t develop overnight and taxpayers are reaping what they sowed, or at least reaping what their lawmakers sowed. You should let those lawmakers know how you feel if you want this to change.

And you should change, as well. It is not smart to send a tax return through the U.S. mail. Electronic filing is a much more secure alternative, and it’s quicker. With direct deposit, you can get your refund within days. Even with the pandemic, most e-filers have gotten their refunds promptly.

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  1. Evelyn Brzezinski says

    My tax preparer e-filed on my behalf and has a confirmation of receipt dated 3/30/20. I still have not received my refund, which was to be deposited into my checking account, although I’ve progressed from “in progress” or something like that to “We have received your tax return and it is being processed,” which was the message in late May when I went to the “Where’s My Refund” website. Because the refund is small and I know it’s been an extraordinary year for the IRS, I haven’t worried too much about it and figure I’ll get it eventually. But it would be a mistake for readers to think that filing electronically is a panacea for delayed refunds. I recognize Liz’s last sentence says “most” e-filers, not “all” e-filers, but some readers may interpret otherwise so I wanted to share this alternate experience.

  2. Jamie Crawford says

    Actually I e-filed March 18th and it was verified received by irs the next day. I also mailed 2017 and 2018 returns same day as they cannot be e-filed. Neither of the mailed forms even show received and I know that’s due to the shutdown. I accept that it will take time and will be later this summer. But the one I e-filed for 2019 is still showing processing. So not all e-filed returns got done in a timely manner.

    • Liz Weston says

      I’ve heard from a lot of people in the same boat. If you filed electronically after early March, or even earlier but your e-filed return got flagged, you’re in the same boat as those who filed a paper return.

  3. Carla hall says

    Dear liz I filed my taxes since mid January electronically. I received my state but I did not receive my federal. Weeks passed and nothing happened so I called the IRS and was told I will be receiving within 45 days. But it still did not come n now when I do contact them they saying they received it and it is being processed from January 27th.

    • Liz Weston says

      While the IRS has started calling employees back to work, several major operations centers won’t be open until later this month and the backlog is tremendous. It could be weeks more before you hear anything.

  4. Matthew Sibley says

    I filed for my federal taxes electronically on February 8th 2020. The IRS accepted my return and less than an hour of it being electronically filed. On the 13th of March was admitted to the hospital to give birth to my new baby daughter. Originally we had hoped given the time frame it took last year our tax return would be in the bank when I came out of the hospital. We are still reeling from being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous real estate agent and as a result our family of 5 lives in an economy extended stay motel room, essentially a 200 sq ft dorm room that unfortunately cost us quite dearly. We had long planned on receiving our return before April 1st, having never taken more than five weeks in the past.
    Within a 39 hour period starting March 9 my wife was laid off, I was laid off, our baby was born, and our kids were ordered to stay home from school because all of the schools are closing. Now our pitifully small room would also serves as the classroom for two elementary students, a nursery for a newborn , the parents master bedroom, not to mention the dog house. In the meantime the administration deliberately and with do purpose put us out of a job without a plan in which to keep us afloat. Now that entire team of monkeys seems to be more worried about pushing out these ludicrous stimulus checks to people who still have jobs, many others who are so well ensconced in the middle class that it would take months possibly years of total economic fall out before $1,200 meant anything to them. All we humbly asked for was the taxes due to us by law. In the intervening 7 weeks before one of us received our first $275 unemployment check we quite literally starved to make sure the children had plenty, not to mention the daily indignity of stopping at the front desk to tell the manager yet again that neither our tax return nor an unemployment check had arrived. Also during these weeks are vehicle broke down, with estimates running well over $1,500 I was forced to take a crash course in Japanese engine repair to be able to do the work myself.
    Since that second week of March we have lived on the good graces of the management here at the hotel. However there is no law protecting us from an eviction nor the $10 daily late fee that we are accruing since Marh 12,
    As I write this it has been 128 days since the IRS accepted our tax return. If it’s hard to conceptualize what 128 days is, it’s nearly four months. In the intervening time Netflix Redbox and Amazon have all put charges on to our account that were not ours and their mechanisms for reporting these over charges I shut down because of covid-19 restrictions. Injustice here is palpable, bad temberef outrage is becoming the norm in our house, even my seven-year-old is bitterly disappointed in the system that has completely failed our family. His recommended solution was simple, why don’t we call the president? My son saw a news clip about Trump putting his name on the federal stimulus checks, so his seven-year-old reasoning let him to believe that surely since he seemed to be giving them to everyone maybe he’ll they’ll send us a check too. It was at this, the most poignant point in the crisis so far, with everything having turned to dust around us that I realized how much wealth had truly left the Washington machine in the CARES and HEROS Acts and how pitifully little had managed to trickle down to us. Instead it seems that wealth instead had been disproportionately and unfairly distributed among persons whose need was suspect at best,
    nevermind the nearly inconceivable amount of money that has been made available to massive corporations such as the airline industry and other Wall Street giants in the form of loans that are actually just government handouts in disguise because written into the legislation are back doors that will allow the Super Rich corporations to avoid ever having to pay these back.
    In the meantime for myself I would just like to have back what is owed to me by law. I feel like not only is the the intrinsic system of American governance breaking down in this crisis but the system as a whole has utterly failed the people who worked to make the service industry in this country what it is. This is a fundamental failure of leadership there is absolutely no explaining away billions of dollars in grants to companies whos own balance sheet show MILLIONS in PROFIT in every subsequent quarter for nearly a decade since our recovery begin from the Great Recession.
    Please if there’s a decent person left in government, or if there is a decent person left in the media that can bring attention to the plight of people like us, those truly forgotten, us truly abandoned and truly alone in this time of crisis. Even the government motto of Alone Together stings like salt on our wounds. We are alone, alone with ourselves. And in the meantime I continue to try to keep the faith in front of my kids to try and be civil with people we could never conceptualize the position that we are in and thus dismiss us as just another welfare case. There’s no welfare involved in the tax money that we paid with our wages, that money the government owes us for our overpayment on our income taxes… owes us not just monetarily but owes us as a debt of conscience, I am an American whose faith in the system of America has been shaken to its core. How can my own government allow me to have to make choices between feeding myself in my wife or feeding my children? First they take my ability to support myself away by closing my job then allows it’s own organs of governance to change internal mechanisms that have been effective for years,ultimately descending themselvs into chaos. Dear Washington all we want is what is ours. I don’t want your stimulus I don’t want your unemployment I just want my job and I want my overpayment of income taxes back. Get out of your bubble, it won’t be long before Bob Dylan’s words will come back to haunt you all because The Times They Are A-Changin and I say that with the confidence of an American who feels the change in himself


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