Why You May Not Get Your Tax Return Back Until December

Now that Americans have survived the most recent Tax Day, millions of people will be waiting months for the IRS to complete their returns.

Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig recently told Congress to expect the backlog to last until December.

Although Rettig said his organization prioritizes returns that are eligible for refunds, you may be waiting on your money for many months especially if you filed a paper return near the deadline.

The IRS first indicated that it might be overwhelmed this year prior to opening the window for 2021 returns back in January. That caused money expert Clark Howard to reiterate his long-held advice to file your taxes early and electronically — and to avoid withholding too much and getting owed a big refund.

“This is going to be a tough, tough tax year. The IRS is extremely short-staffed,” Clark said earlier this year. “They were very upfront that they’re going to screw up this tax season. That they’re not going to be able to process refunds in an orderly or timely basis.”

Tax law changes in 2021 and ongoing challenges related to COVID-19, such as accounting for stimulus money and and ongoing employee shortages, are among the reasons for big delays.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office paints an unpleasant picture:

  • The IRS employs roughly the same number of people as it did in 1970. The U.S. population at the time: 205 million. That figure rose to 329.5 million in 2020 (not to mention all the economic growth in the 52 years since '70).
  • Only 11% of those who called the IRS for help last year managed to reach a customer service representative.
  • The average wait time for such a phone call: 28 minutes.
  • The IRS still had 10.5 million tax returns to process at the end of last year.
  • Delays have forced the IRS to pay nearly $14 billion in interest on tax refunds in the last seven years.

The “imbalance between the IRS’ workload and its resources has never been greater,” said National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins, an independent government watchdog.

“This past year was the most challenging year that taxpayers and tax professionals have ever experienced. Millions of taxpayers are confused. They’re frustrated, and they’re still waiting for their refunds from the last filing season.”

You can at least check the status of your tax refund online. If you filed electronically, you can check the status of your return after 24 hours. That number stretches to 21 days if you filed by mail.

The best place to check the status of your tax refund (received, approved or sent) is the "Where's My Refund?" page of the IRS website.

Rettig said the IRS also has to contend with 2.4 million cyber attacks per day. He also said that major firms are dragging out proceedings by overwhelming the IRS with paperwork.

“Absent consistent, timely, multi-year funding, we have largely been a paper-based organization operating in a digital world environment,” Retting said.

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