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Refunds from the IRS may go out, but hurdles to complete your return remain

Key Points
  • Despite the shutdown, the IRS expects to open the filing season on Jan. 28 and pay taxpayers their refunds.
  • Key tax rules remain pending due to the shutdown. Experts worry that the IRS will be short on staff to answer questions.
  • File when you’re ready and as early as you can.
The Internal Revenue Services offices in Washington, D.C.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The IRS has assured taxpayers of two key concerns during the ongoing federal government shutdown — the tax season start date and the availability of refunds — but accountants say the tax-filing season could still be painful.

Earlier this week, the tax agency said that it would kick off the income tax--filing season on Jan. 28 and taxpayers would receive the refunds they're owed, in spite of the shutdown.

The IRS said it would also recall a "significant portion" of its workforce, bringing them back to work without pay.

But accountants warn that difficult times may still be ahead for taxpayers as the shutdown continues.

"It looks like getting the refund will no longer be the issue, but now it's the lack of support you will get if you try to call — and it will be significant this year," said Tim Steffen, CPA and director of advanced planning at Robert W. Baird & Co.

Here are the hurdles that may stand between you and having your return processed smoothly if the shutdown continues.

Reduced service

Nora Carol Photography | Getty Images

The IRS hasn't yet rolled out its contingency plan for the tax-filing season.

However, positions that have been furloughed include personnel who will respond to taxpayers' calls, according to the IRS's earlier contingency plan.

The IRS gets more than 95 million calls on its toll-free lines each year, according to a 2017 report from the agency's Taxpayer Advocate Service.

IRS customer satisfaction

Close to 40 percent of the taxpayers polled by the Taxpayer Advocate Service said that calling the IRS didn't fully resolve their problem. The advocate administered a survey to 3,735 filers in February 2017.

Areas with the least customer satisfaction include return preparation assistance, information on a notice and information on a refund, the Taxpayer Advocate Service found.

This dissatisfaction will be further compounded by the fact that this is the first time filers will submit returns under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — a sweeping overhaul of the tax code that resulted in higher standard deductions and new limitations on itemized deductions.

I can't think of a time when there's been more change for individuals in the last two decades where people will be asking for answers.
Troy Lewis
CPA and chair of the American Institute of CPA's task force on qualified business income

Even the Form 1040 has been overhauled, trimmed to the size of a postcard and accompanied by six schedules.

"I'm worried that the service won't be able to respond to questions," said Troy Lewis, CPA and chair of the American Institute of CPA's task force on qualified business income.

"I can't think of a time when there's been more change for individuals in the last two decades where people will be asking for answers," he said.

Regulatory limbo

Hero Images | Getty Images

Another filing season hiccup is the fact that accountants have been awaiting the final word on regulations that would affect clients' 2018 returns.

For instance, small businesses are holding out for the 20 percent qualified business income deduction. It's a break for so-called pass-through entities, including sole proprietorships and S-corporations.

Accountants are awaiting final regulations from the Treasury on this break to help clients with their 2018 returns. However, the shutdown has slowed down that process.

"I think that deduction applies to more people than we realize," said Barry Picker, CPA and co-founder of Picker & Auerbach in Brooklyn, New York. "It would be nice to have those final regulations.

"You don't want to be filing amended returns," he added.

Amended returns

cmannphoto | Getty Images

Taxpayers with amended returns may also wait a little longer to get a refund if the shutdown continues.

Staffers processing amended returns were among the positions to be furloughed, according to the IRS's non-filing season contingency plan.

Amended income tax returns — or Form 1040x — must be submitted on paper. They can take up to 16 weeks to process, according to the IRS.

"Amended returns are much more manual, so we expect the taxpayers awaiting refunds based on amended returns will have a longer delay," said Suzanne Shier, chief tax strategist at Northern Trust.

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