Why Your Tax Refund Is Delayed

Wondering where your tax refund is? Here’s why it might be delayed

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Getting a tax refund can provide a much-needed infusion of cash for many people. It can mean waiting for money that you might need to pay bills or boost your emergency fund if your tax refund is delayed.

The average tax refund was $2,549 in 2020, according to the IRS, and you might be eligible to claim the Recovery Rebate Credit in 2021 if you didn't receive any stimulus money in 2020. That's even more of a refund you might be entitled to, so it's important to know when it will actually hit your bank account (or mailbox).

Here are a few things that might cause a tax refund delay.

How Long Does It Take To Get a Tax Refund From the IRS?

The IRS aims to issue tax refunds in less than 21 calendar days after your return is received. The IRS encourages taxpayers to file their returns electronically and request direct deposit as the fastest way to get their tax refunds.

The 2021 tax-filing season got off to a later start than usual in 2021, with the IRS starting to accept and process tax returns on Feb. 12. This delay allowed the IRS more time to test its computer systems for processing returns after the December tax-law change prompted a second round of stimulus payments.

You could potentially receive your tax refund by March 5 if you file your return on or before Feb. 12, and it is accepted and processed that day. That's assuming the IRS is able to get it out to you within the 21-day window and you elected to get your refund via direct deposit. You might be waiting up to eight weeks to receive your refund if you filed a paper tax return.

Reasons Why Your Tax Refund May Be Delayed

Several things could be holding up your refund, but some problems are more common than others. Here are some of the most common causes of a tax refund delay.

Incorrect Information or Mistakes

Mistakes can cost you precious time when you're waiting for your refund. Your tax return will be flagged if the information you provide doesn't match up with IRS records. You'd have to wait for it to be reviewed by an agent before a refund can be issued.

Simple math errors can also cause issues. The IRS will send you a CP2000 Notice explaining the nature of the problem if it catches a math error on your return. The notice will tell you how to respond.

Math errors could result in getting a smaller refund, or even owing more in taxes after your tax return is recalculated, so it's important to carefully double-check that all your information is accurate.

You could also experience a tax refund delay if you enter incorrect bank account information for direct deposit. When your refund arrives can depend on several factors in this case:

For example, if:

  • You omit a digit in your bank account or routing number and the number doesn't pass the IRS validation guidelines, your direct deposit will be canceled and you'll be issued a paper check instead.
  • You incorrectly enter your bank account or routing number, but it passes the validation check, you'll receive a paper check if the financial institution receiving the direct deposit refund rejects it.
  • You incorrectly enter your bank account or routing number and the designated financial institution accepts the deposit, you'll have to contact that bank to try and get your money back.

The IRS doesn't intervene if your refund goes into someone else's bank account. You'll have to take up the issue with the bank that received the deposit.

Claiming Certain Credits

Tax credits reduce your tax liability on a dollar-for-dollar basis, but claiming certain credits can slow down the processing of your return and cause a tax refund delay.

If you claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC), the IRS is required by law to review your return to verify your income, dependents, and other relevant information. It can’t issue you a refund before March in 2021 if you claimed either of these credits. The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act requires the IRS to verify information for taxpayers who claim the EITC or ACTC, no matter how early you file.

Filing a Paper Return

The IRS urges taxpayers to file electronically and choose direct deposit to get their tax refund faster. You could be waiting up to eight weeks for your refund to be issued if you choose to file a paper return or need to do so for any reason.

Mail delays related to COVID-19 might increase the wait time to receive a refund via paper check in 2021.

Security Measures

The IRS might enforce a tax refund delay if it suspects that your identity has been stolen and used to fraudulently file a return or claim a refund in your name. If necessary, the IRS will send you Form 5071C, asking you to verify your information before your refund can be released.

The IRS also allows taxpayers to create an Identity Protection Pin to help secure their tax information from identity thieves.

Submit Form 14039, the Identity Theft Affidavit, to the IRS along with a paper copy of your tax return if you think you’ve been the victim of tax-related identity theft or fraud. The IRS will investigate the matter for you.

Several states also have their own policies and procedures for delaying tax refunds in order to help prevent tax-related identity theft and refund fraud. They include Iowa, Illinois, and Massachusetts. Check with your state’s Department of Revenue, Office of the Tax Commissioner, or other state office/department if your state tax refund is delayed to see if it’s under review for identity theft or fraud.

Unpaid Debts or Taxes

Outstanding debts can come back to haunt you, delaying your tax refund. The Bureau of the Fiscal Service (BFS) will reduce or withhold your tax refund if you owe certain types of debt. This is called an offset and it can apply to:

  • Past-due child support
  • Non-tax debts owed to federal agencies (such as federal student loans)
  • Unpaid state income tax obligations
  • Certain unemployment compensation debts owed to a state

The BFS will send you a notice if part of your tax refund is offset to pay a debt. You can dispute the debt with the agency listed as the payee on the notice or with the BFS if you disagree with the amount that was offset from your refund.

Your refund can also be offset if you have an outstanding federal tax bill. The IRS will send you a CP49 Notice in this case, explaining that part or all of your refund was used to satisfy a federal tax debt.

If you still owe additional taxes after your refund has been offset, you'll have to arrange to pay it off. You might be able to set up an Installment Agreement payment plan with the IRS. 

You’re Being Audited

The IRS audits a very small number of returns each year. It took a closer look at just 0.6% of all individual tax returns filed between tax years 2010 and 2018. On the off chance that your return is selected for an audit—either randomly or because your return triggered a red flag with the IRS—the processing of your refund might naturally be delayed until the government is able to accurately determine what you owe.

How To Check on Your Tax Refund

A tax refund delay can be nerve-racking. Fortunately, the IRS offers multiple ways to track your tax refund. First, you can check the status using the IRS’s online Where's My Refund? tool. You'll have to enter your:

  • Social Security number or ITIN
  • Filing status
  • Exact refund amount

Info on the page is updated daily. You can also check where your refund is by using the IRS2Go app.

You can call the IRS to track down your tax refund if the Where's My Refund tool tells you to call, or if it's been 21 days or more since you e-filed.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

I had to amend my tax return, how long will it be delayed?

The IRS usually accepts all amended tax returns. Since these are filed by mail, the processing time is longer than those filed electronically. It can take up to three months to get your amended tax refund back. It can take longer if the IRS disagrees with the updates, but you can track the status at any time from the IRS website.

Will my state and federal tax refunds come at the same time? 

Even when filing at the same time, your state and federal refunds may not come simultaneously. While one may appear delayed, please take into consideration that they are coming from two different sources. You can check the status of your federal refund with the IRS and your state refund on your home state's website.