Q&A: Why tax refunds are taking so long to arrive

Dear Liz: You mentioned that people who file electronically and use direct deposit generally get their refunds much more quickly than those who file paper returns. That has always been true for me, but this year I filed in February and got a message that there was a problem but not to contact the IRS for 60 days. Then COVID-19 happened and the IRS basically shut down. Can you tell me when they will release my money?

Answer: No one knows. The IRS is still in the process of calling employees back to work and some operations centers won’t reopen until later this month.

As employees return, they’re confronting an almost incomprehensible backlog of paperwork and requests for help. Millions of paper returns are sitting in trailers, waiting to be input into the IRS’ computers, and no one has been available to process electronically filed returns that were flagged because of problems.

People who have already been waiting months may still have to wait several weeks more before they see their money or can even access someone who knows what’s happened to their returns. As a reminder, the IRS extended the tax filing deadline to July 15.

How filing taxes could generate your coronavirus stimulus check

Dear Liz: My adjusted gross income in 2019 was too high for me to get a stimulus relief payment. However, my income this year will be much lower and I would qualify. Will I automatically get the stimulus payment when I file my 2020 return or is there something I must do to get the money?

Answer: Just file your 2020 taxes and you’ll get the money.

The recent relief checks of up to $1,200 per adult were created using a refundable credit that will apply to 2020 taxes. (Refundable credits reduce your tax bill dollar for dollar, with any excess refunded to the taxpayer.)

The structure of this refundable credit has created some confusion. Many people thought the payments would reduce the refund they would normally get, but that’s not the case. Rather, the relief checks are an advance on a credit that has been added to their 2020 taxes. When people file their 2020 tax returns, they’ll deduct their relief payments from that new credit. (And although the credits are refundable, the money doesn’t have to be paid back if you got a payment but your 2020 income turns out to be too high.)

If you didn’t get a payment but you qualify based on your 2020 income, you’ll get the credit when you file.

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.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Credit score drop? How to diagnose why and what to do next. Also in the news: A new episode of the SmartMoney podcast on the safety of Bitcoin, what to do if you’re struggling with IRS delays, and what to do about your FSA contributions if your child care is closed.

Credit Score Drop? How to Diagnose Why, and What to Do Next
Time to check your credit report.

SmartMoney Podcast: ‘Is Bitcoin Safe?’
A look at the popular cryptocurrency.

Try these workarounds if you’re struggling with IRS delays
Tips on how to get help.

What to Do About Your FSA Contributions if Your Child Care Is Closed
The IRS has made some changes.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 6 tips for handling credit card bills if you’ve lost income. Also in the news: How to slash your cell phone bill, how to work around delays in major IRS functions, and how credit card rewards will change after the pandemic.

6 tips for handling credit card bills if you’ve lost income
Protecting yourself from penalties.

How to slash your cell phone bill
Ways to reduce your monthly costs.

How to Work Around Delays in Major IRS Functions
Exploring your options.

How Credit Card Rewards Will Change After the Pandemic
The new normal for rewards.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 questions to ask before canceling your travel credit card. Also in the news: Think it’s bad now? Wait until hurricane and fire seasons start, 8 types of credit card relief you can ask for, and tomorrow is the deadline to receive your Coronavirus payment by direct deposit.

5 Questions to Ask Before Canceling Your Travel Credit Card
You might hurt your credit score.

Think it’s bad now? Wait until hurricane and fire seasons start
Mother nature doesn’t care about your pandemic.

8 types of credit card relief you can ask for
From delayed payments to credit line increases.

Tomorrow Is the Deadline to Receive Your Coronavirus Payment by Direct Deposit
Get your information in.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: For self-employed, filing for unemployment benefits is getting easier. Also in the news: How to pay rent when you can’t afford it, what to keep in mind with credit card payments during the pandemic, and how to find out what you owe the IRS.

For Self-Employed, Filing for Unemployment Benefits Is Getting Easier
What you need to know before filing a claim.

How to Pay Rent When You Can’t Afford It
Exploring your options.

COVID-19: What to Keep in Mind With Credit Card Bill Payments
Reach out to your card issuer.

Use This IRS Tool to Check What You Owe Them
Making sure you’re up-to-date.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: IRS Data shows agency, filers slow down. Also in the news: How to ask your bank or lender for help, how to protect your health with a clean car, and what to do if you get a bill for your Coronavirus test.

IRS Data: Refunds Lag as Agency, Tax Filers Slow Down
You should get in line for your refund.

How to Ask Your Bank or Lender for Help
Don’t be intimidated.

Protect Your Health With a Clean Car
Protecting your health and your investment.

What to Do if You Get a Bill for Your Coronavirus Test
Navigating your way through the red tape.

Q&A: Where’s my stimulus check?

Dear Liz: My wife and I are retired and don’t have enough income to file tax returns. How can we get our stimulus checks?

Answer: If you get Social Security checks, your stimulus checks will be sent to you automatically, either via direct deposit if that’s how you get your benefits or paper check.

If you don’t collect Social Security yet and didn’t file a tax return for 2018 or 2019 because your income was below the limit to require filing, the IRS.gov website has more information.

The IRS has started sending out stimulus checks via direct deposit for people who filed 2018 or 2019 returns and provided their bank information. Those who filed returns but did not provide their bank information can follow an IRS “Get My Payment” link for assistance.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Don’t let your Coronavirus relief check disappear into your debts. Also in the news: How to make your car last 200,000 miles, what kind of credit card relief you can request during the pandemic, and how to check the status of your Coronavirus relief payment.

Don’t Let Your Relief Check Disappear Into Your Debts
How your relief check could be diverted.

How to Make Your Car Last 200,000 Miles
Yes, you read that correctly.

COVID-19: What Kinds of Credit Card Relief Can You Request?
Take the initiative and be prepared to spend a long time on hold.

How to Check the Status of Your Coronavirus Relief Payment
Tracking your money.