Personal Finance

When you should (and shouldn’t) worry if your tax refund is delayed

US News & World Report
Molly McCluskey
Getty Images

The income tax filing deadline is just around the corner, but many taxpayers decided not to wait until the last minute to file. Those who opted against procrastination and are entitled to a refund may have already received it. But for those anxiously awaiting a check in the mail or a sum deposited directly into their bank account, the wait can be fraught with worry.

After all, a delayed refund can mean more than waiting a few extra days for your cash – it can signal problems with your return. So when should you give worrying a rest, and when is there real cause for concern?

Where's my refund?

According to the IRS, refund information is available as soon as 24 hours after an e-filed return is received, while the status on a mailed return takes about four weeks. The IRS's Where's My Refund? tool is popular with taxpayers wanting to check on their return. In fact, it's so popular that the tool has been known to get jammed by eager taxpayers checking on their returns several times a day. But experts warn that there's no need to check it multiple times daily since it typically updates just once per day, usually at night.

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The IRS2Go mobile app, available on the App Store, Google Play and Amazon, is another tool for taxpayers looking to check their refund status.

Most refunds are are issued in fewer than 21 days, according to the IRS. There are a number of reasons a refund could be delayed, any of which are a legitimate cause for concern, says Brian Ashcraft, director of operations for Liberty Tax. "Incomplete or glaring errors on the return could do it, or they could get an additional IRS review," he says. "Certain returns are flagged, or if your return has been impacted by identity theft or fraud."

If there's an error on your return, you may see an error code when using the Where's My Refund? tool, Ashcraft says. That may help you identify the reason for a delay.

But Melissa Labant, director of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants tax staff, says taxpayers will know that's an issue long before they go to check the status of their refund. "If there's an issue of identity theft, in most cases, you'll know when you attempt to file your return," she says. "The IRS won't allow you to file your return because another one has been filed under your Social Security number."

The IRS must also wait until a certain date to process and issue refunds to taxpayers claiming the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit. According to the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act, the IRS cannot issue those funds before mid-February, so early filers claiming those credits would not see their money until after that date has passed.

The holdup with your tax refund could also be an issue of withholding.

"Unpaid child support, federal agency debt, outstanding student loans, back state income tax – any of these things could offset the refund," Ashcraft says. "But if it does, you'll be notified."

Before you assume the worst, remember: Sometimes a delay is just a delay.

When to take action

If you haven't heard anything three weeks after filing your return, it's time to check in with the IRS.

"After 21 days, that would be the only time you'd realize that something didn't go through as normal," Ashcraft says, "and you can talk to an IRS representative."

If a month goes by and you haven't heard anything, visit the Where's My Refund? page for more information. If your refund has been lost, you can request a replacement check if it has been more than 28 days from when your refund was mailed.

If you can't get your refund questions answered through the Where's My Refund? tool or by talking with an IRS representative, consider contacting the Taxpayer Advocate Service. This independent organization within the IRS represents taxpayers and can be contacted at 877-777-4778.

And keep in mind there's always the possibility that a minor error is holding things up.

"It's not always 'the sky's falling' if you didn't get your refund," Ashcraft says. "Sometimes, you just didn't fill it out properly."