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6 things that could delay the arrival or lower the amount of your tax refund

Black Friday shopping crowd
The first day of tax filing season essentially is the tax version of Black Friday, with taxpayers — mostly those expecting refunds — rushing the Internal Revenue Service's digital doors. (Screenshot of eager Black Friday shoppers from Jerry Bailey's YouTube video)

Today is the first day of the 2020 tax filing season and already folks are wanting to know when they're get their refunds.

That question is totally understandable. Despite last year's refund confusion caused by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) changes, the average federal income tax refund was in 2019 was $2,869 based on returns processed through Dec. 27, 2019.

Even if it's not that much this year, lots of folks depend each year on their annual tax cash.

No more firm delivery dates:Years ago, the Internal Revenue Service issued a calendar of sorts giving dates when folks could expect their tax refunds if they filed them electronically.

The tax agency found, however, that produced more problems than solutions.

2012 IRS refund delivery table

Taxpayers were quick to complain when the IRS announced date came and went and they were still waiting for their refunds. So in 2012, the IRS discontinued the printed refund timetable.

How much, when refund issues: Some reputable websites have created their own predictive tables similar to the old IRS printed schedule. But those are, at best, educated guesses.

The official IRS word is that it issues most refunds (9 out of 10) in less than 21 days after a return is processed. That's cool, unless you're that rogue return that doesn't make the 21-day target.

There are some common reasons why the processing of tax returns might be slowed down, as well as why the tax refund you get might not be as much as you had expected.

Below are 6, based on information from the IRS, the Taxpayer Advocate Service and my years of talking to and with taxpayers and tax professionals.

1. Tax identity theft and fraudulent refunds: Obviously, when a tax crook steals your identity and files a 1040 as you, that will slow down the processing of your real return. But preventative measures also can delay things.

As tax schemes have expanded, IRS efforts to fight them also have increased. That's good in that it keeps crooks from getting your/our legitimate refunds. It's bad in that it slows down how quickly we get our refunds. This necessary IRS anti-tax fraud effort has been cited by the National Taxpayer Advocate as a major refund delay factor.

2. Ever-changing tax laws: Tax laws are not just a pain in the tush for us filers. They complicate the IRS' job, too. It has to make sure its systems are up to date in connection with the changes. It also often takes the agency more time to review returns that are affected by these new laws.

That's the case with many changes under the massive TCJA, as well an older Congressional mandate that the IRS hold refunds from returns containing Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) and/or Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) claims until mid-February.

The required tax credit hold applies to the entire refund, even the portion not associated with the EITC or ACTC. The IRS says it expects most EITC/ACTC related refunds to be available in taxpayer bank accounts or on debit cards by the first week of March, if the filer chose direct deposit and there are no other issues with the tax return.

3. Form 1040 errors: Among those other issues the IRS says could slow down a refund are mistakes on your Form 1040. Sure, the increased use of tax software to prepare returns has reduced filing errors.

Reduced, not eliminated. Even with software — or a tax pro if you go that route — mistakes are not uncommon. They include unintentional errors like transposing amounts entered on your return. The tax due on or tax break available is totally different, for example, on amounts of $21,700 or $12,700 or $27,100. Similarly, a wrong Social Security or other tax identifier number will bring a full stop to the processing of your taxes.

And once you put a wrong entry on a form, it gets automatically populated on other pages of your return. Yes, sometimes technology can backfire on our taxes, maybe not to the RoboCop or Terminator levels, but bad enough to slow things down at tax time. So be careful in filling out your return.

"It's only a glitch." 

4. An incomplete filing: This is the close cousin of incorrectly entered information. Here taxpayers forget about info that makes a big tax difference, in good or bad ways. If you're in a hurry and file before you get all your tax documentation, you'll could leave off some earnings that the IRS will learn of when it gets its copy of the 1099 you didn't wait for to file.

In instances of errors, missing date or identity fraud, the IRS notes that it "will contact taxpayers by mail when more information is needed to process a return." And that, of course, will slow down everything.

5. Wrong withholding: Sometimes when a refund finally arrives, it's smaller than expected. One reason this happens is because a filer didn't correctly calculate withholding.

That was the case last year when the TCJA through a wrench into things. The IRS has updated its online offerings to help folk refine their payroll withholding. Some, however, aren't taking advantage of it or are trying to tweak it to reflect their own refund preferences.

The conventional wisdom is that you want the taxes taken out of your paychecks to be as close as possible to your eventual final tax liability. But some folks fiddle with their W-4 to intentionally get a refund. An error in calculating could cost you at filing time.

6. Past-due debts: Then there are other amounts you might owe that could take a bite out of your federal tax refund. A common one is a prior federal tax bill you haven't paid. Uncle Sam is going to get that amount before he sends you any refund — if there's any refund left after he's through!

Other past-due debts that could be taken out of your federal refund include unpaid state income tax, state unemployment compensation debts, child support, spousal support or even student loans.

Tracking your refund: OK, you know you're going to get at least something back from your IRS filing. Now we're back to when that will happen.

The quickest and most accurate way to know when you'll get your refund is to use the IRS' online Where's My Refund? tracking tool. It's available at the website or you can find it on the IRS2Go mobile app.

The status data is updated daily, usually overnight. That once-a-day timetable means that whenever you file, be it during this opening day of the 2020 filing season or closer to the April 15 deadline, you need to wait update at least 24 hours to check if you e-filed your return. If you snail mail it, you've got a four-week wait before you should check.

Either way, the best advice is to be patient (or at least try). You're one of millions of taxpayers. The IRS will get to your return, and get your refund out, as soon as it can.

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I am a 79 year old Social Security recepient who does not file income taxes and my Social Security check is directly deposited into my bank. I have not received my Stimulus check and I there absolutely no where to find the answer and no one to speak with. SSI has my bank information! Others in my same situation have received their stimulus check and I have not.
I NEED HELP. I have tried that non-filers tax tool online but it is requiring a PIN number which I do not have since I don't file taxes.
I have tried calling SS and the IRS but have received no assistance at all. I am only told to refer to for information.
I am a disabled, retired elderly American citizen and I am entitled to my relief check and a response.

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