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5 Mistakes That Will Delay Your IRS Tax Refund

You’ll likely get your refund within 21 days if you avoid these common mistakes

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AARP; (Source: Getty Images (2))

After preparing your tax return and discovering you’ll get a refund, you might be planning to spend that money as soon as it arrives. But don’t get ahead of yourself. There are plenty of reasons why your tax refund (and spending spree) can be delayed for weeks

The IRS proudly boasts that more than 90 percent of all tax refunds are delivered within 21 days. But how you file your return, the payment method you choose, errors on your 1040 and other preventable factors can push that timeline back significantly.

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So how do you get your tax refund as soon as possible? Avoiding the following missteps is a good place to start.

1. Filing a paper tax return

Don’t hold your breath waiting for your refund if you mail a paper return. It’s going to take longer to get your money if you go that route.

Instead, file your tax return electronically. Not only will the IRS receive your return in seconds, but it can process e-filed returns much more quickly and efficiently than paper returns. And the sooner the IRS processes your return, the sooner it can send your refund.

There are several ways to e-file your return, and in some cases it’s absolutely free. For instance, you can hire a trusted CPA, enrolled agent, or other tax professional to prepare and e-file your return. That’s typically the most expensive option, but at least you’ll avoid some of the headaches and uncertainty that comes with doing your own taxes.

If you feel comfortable handling your own return, the various commercial tax software products on the market will let you file electronically (e.g., TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxSlayer, etc.). If you have a relatively simple return, you might even qualify for free use of the software.

Estimate Your 2023 Taxes

AARP’s tax calculator can help you predict what you’re likely to pay for the 2023 tax year.

The IRS also provides a few no-cost tax return preparation and e-filing options. For example, you can file your taxes for free using a commercial tax software product through the IRS Free File program if your 2023 adjusted gross income (AGI) was $79,000 or less. If your income is too high, you can still use the IRS Free File Fillable Forms, but you won’t have the benefit of tax software that guides you through your return. And new this year, taxpayers with simple returns who live in 12 pilot states can prepare and e-file their return using tax software developed by the IRS itself under the Direct File pilot program.

Certain low- and moderate-income filers can have an IRS-trained volunteer tax preparer complete and e-file their return through the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide service or the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.

2. Requesting a paper refund check

Just as it takes the IRS more time to process a paper tax return, it also takes them more time to send a paper tax refund check. Plus, it can take several days for a check to reach your mailbox via “snail mail.”

There’s a better option: Have your refund deposited directly into your checking or savings account in an instant (although it could take your bank a few days to post the funds to your account). If you’re using software to prepare your return, the program will walk you through the steps needed to request direct deposit. If you’re filing a paper return (again, not recommended), simply provide the required information on Lines 35b to 35d of your Form 1040.

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In some cases, you can have your refund credited to a prepaid debit card or mobile payment app. You’ll need to send a routing and account number to the IRS, which you can get from the financial institution that issued your debit card or the mobile app provider if they permit tax refund deposits.

There are also several other direct deposit options available. For instance, you can also have your tax refund deposited directly into an:

  • Individual retirement account (IRA)
  • Health savings account (HSA)
  • Archer medical savings account (MSA)
  • Coverdell education savings account (ESA)
  • TreasuryDirect online account

Your tax return can be used to buy up to $5,000 in Series I savings bonds, too. You can even have your refund split up and directly deposited into two or three different accounts. (Use Form 8888 if you want to split your refund or purchase savings bonds.)

3. Not waiting for all your 1099s or W-2s to arrive

Filing your tax return too soon can also delay your refund. For instance, suppose you filed your return shortly after tax season began, and then you receive a 1099 form for an account you forgot about. Or perhaps you hold multiple jobs, and a W-2 arrives after you’ve submitted your return. The problem is that the IRS has already received all your 1099s and W-2s. So if you don’t include income from all your 1099s and W-2s on your return, your income will be lower than what the IRS has on file.

That will trigger an IRS CP2000 Notice, a letter telling you the income you reported on your return doesn’t match what the IRS has on file. The notice will propose changes to your return, based on the agency’s files, and ask you to pay additional taxes or let you know that the IRS is reducing your refund. You’ll have to complete and sign a response form saying that you either agree with the IRS’s changes or you disagree, in which case you’ll need to provide documentation to support your case. While all this is going on, the IRS is sitting on your refund.

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Another potential headache is that you have all your 1099s and W-2s, but one of them is incorrect. You should carefully check your 1099s, W-2s and other year-end statements as they arrive to ensure there are no errors. If you do find a mistake, contact the employer, payer or issuing agency right away and request a corrected form.

If an employer (W-2) or financial institution that sent you retirement plan distributions (1099-R) doesn’t respond to your request for a corrected form by the end of February, call the IRS at 800-829-1040 and ask them to contact the employer or payor for you. If that doesn’t work, use Form 4852 to send estimated W-2 or 1099-R amounts to the IRS. However, again, all this takes time and ultimately delays your tax refund.

4. Making mistakes on your 1040

Errors on your tax return can slow down your refund, too. If the IRS discovers a potential mistake when it’s processing your return, additional time will be needed to review the error and determine if in any adjustments are necessary. This delay in processing can also push back your refund.

The more complicated the error, the longer the potential refund delay. However, even simple mistakes can slow your refund. That’s why it’s important to carefully review your return before submitting it. That goes for returns prepared by a tax professional, too.

So, what types of blunders can delay the processing of your return and stall your refund? The IRS has a list of common errors that can slow things down, including:

  • Name, address, or other important information isn’t legible
  • Social Security numbers are missing or incorrect
  • Filing status is wrong or more than one box is checked
  • Standard deduction amount doesn’t fit your filing status
  • Information about dependents is absent or wrong
  • Math errors
  • Bank routing and account numbers are missing or incorrect
  • Tax deductions or credits are claimed on the wrong line
  • Necessary forms or schedules are missing
  • Tax table isn’t used properly (e.g., wrong column used)
  • Signature or date of filing are missing

5. Mailing your return to the wrong IRS processing center

Even if your tax return is perfect, you won’t get your refund as quickly as possible if you mail your paper return to the wrong address. There are four different IRS processing centers that handle tax returns requesting a refund. If you send a paper return to the wrong location, that’s going to cause processing delays. And, as you know by now, that can hold up your refund. Not putting enough postage on the envelope can slow down your refund, too.

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