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Where's your tax refund? Use IRS online tool to find out

Tax return 2012 refund Post-It_no date

The only thing worse than not getting the refund you expected is waiting for it to arrive.

The Internal Revenue Service's official goal is to issue refunds within 21 days after processing the returns that produced them.

But if you e-file and opt for direct deposit, the IRS says it's generally able to get most refunds — 9 out of 10 — out to recipients well before the end of that three-week time frame.

Mandated delay done: There's also good news for folks whose refunds are associated with their Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or additional child tax credit claims.

The mandated hold until Feb. 15 on that money has passed.

Of course, mid-February is just when the IRS could start issuing these checks (or depositing the money). But most should be on track for delivery by the end of this month.

So why hasn't your refund shown up yet?

Short answer, it depends.

Filing quirks could delay refund: Every taxpayer situation is unique, which means the IRS also has to make adjustments.

If your taxes are complicated, that likely will complicate the processing of your return.

You can speed things up if you or your tax preparer use software to prepare your return and e-file it. That means it bypasses the step of forcing an IRS employee to enter in all your data into the agency's computer system.

But once it's in the system, it still must be checked, at least cursorily, before any refund is issued.

The IRS wants to make sure that what you report on your 1040 matches the third-party documentation it got — for example, the amounts on W-2s, 1099s, mortgage and personal property tax payment statements copied to the tax collector — before it sends your refund.

The IRS also checks for other things that could slow a return's processing (and subsequent refund), such as:

  • Errors beyond the conflicting entries noted above, such as math mistakes and missing identifiers like Social Security numbers,
  • Incomplete information,
  • Numerous attached schedules or other forms and
  • Further review in general.

If any of these instances prompt the IRS to seek addition info so your return can be processed, the agency will contact you by mail.

Fighting tax fraud: Processing of returns (and subsequent refunds) also are sometimes slowed because the IRS wants to make sure the 1040 is from you.

Although Uncle Sam's tax agency and its state and tax industry partners have improved their tax fraud checking processes, the safeguards still could slow things down a bit.

But hey, it's better to make sure your filing is correct as early as possible so that you don't have to deal with questions and amended filings and possible penalties and interest for wrong amounts later.

And hey, it's much better to ensure that no tax identity thief has used your personal date to file a fake return and claim a refund really meant for you.

No more firm delivery dates: The IRS used to publish a table of when folks could expect their tax refunds if they filed them electronically.

2012 refund delivery chart

But, as noted, every individual return could pose many different processing considerations. Plus, ever-changing tax laws complicated processing some years. And then there are ID theft and refund fraud prevention issues.

In light of all these things, the general refund delivery tables proved problematic. Even though the chart clearly stated the refund dates were projected, the schedule caused much consternation among taxpayers, who freaked out when their expected refund arrival date came and went.

So in 2012, the IRS discontinued the printed refund timetable.

I know some reputable websites have created their own predictive tables similar to the old IRS printed schedules. And I know a couple of the tax pros involved in the creation of these special online pages.

However, their good intentions and educated guesses aside, the surest way to find out about your refund is to check its status using the IRS' online refund search tool.

Locating your refund: With the Where's My Refund app at IRS.gov or available via the IRS2Go mobile app you can get specific information on where your refund is in the IRS system.

You can use Where's My Refund? to start checking on the status of your return within 24 hours after the IRS gets your e-filed return or four weeks after you mail a paper return.

The status tracker displays your refund progress through three stages: (1) Return Received, (2) Refund Approved and (3) Refund Sent.

You'll also need three pieces of info to start the three-stage refund tracking process. (I'm playing a variety/combination of 3s this weekend in the lottery!)

  1. Your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). If you're married and filed a joint return, either spouse's Social Security number can be entered.
  2. Your filing status.
  3. Your exact refund amount as show on your 1040.

When to track your refund: Updates to Where's My Refund? are made daily, usually overnight. So you only need to check it once a day.

And although the tracking tool is available most of the time, if you tend to keep odd hours (like me, a dedicated night owl), you could run into accessibility problems.

The IRS says that the refund tracking system is not available every Monday from 12:00 a.m. (i.e., midnight) to 3 a.m. Eastern Time. And occasionally, the system may be unavailable on Sundays between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. Eastern Time.

Getting added help: For most folks, Where's My Refund? answers that question.

If, however, the electronic checking can't help you find out where your tax cash is, you might need to turn to the IRS for in-person help.

When there's an issue with your return, the Where’s My Refund? tracker will tell you to contact the IRS.

You also might want to reach out to IRS phone reps or agents at a nearby Taxpayer Assistance Center for help researching the status of your refund if it's been 21 days or more since you filed electronically or more than six weeks since you mailed your paper return.

Finally, here's one additional refund tracking tip. Don't mess with getting one next year. You don't have to wait for the IRS to get you your cash back if you adjust your withholding now. That way, you'll have the cash in hand throughout the year.

My earlier post on ways to get a better payoff for your tax money rather than waiting for a refund has some suggestions on how to do this.

Finding other money: Money is found in many interesting place, as the video in my related tax refund tracking Tumbling Taxes post shows. 

You also might find these refund-related posts of interest:

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