12 states started 2024 with lower income taxes
Jan. 29 is official start of 2024 tax filing season

When will you get your federal tax refund? It depends

Refund coming post-it note on 1040_but when

The majority of taxpayers get refunds. They also file early each tax season so they can get their money as soon as possible.

But some are always disappointed.

While the Internal Revenue Service aims for a 21-day turnaround, from the time it gets your return and processes it until the day you have your refund in hand, that's not a rule.

To borrow from Capt. Barbossa in the original "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, it's more of a guideline.

The IRS used to issue a chart showing expected refund dates based on when taxpayers filed. Now that document, IRS Publication 2043, officially echoes Barbossa. Its new title is IRS Refund Information Guidelines for the Tax Preparation Community.

Some websites create their own refund expectancy calendars, using the 21-day goal, providing more or [often] less specific dates for refunds to arrive. But they are just estimates.

Don't count your tax money too soon: I don't want to dash your hopes, but don't get make any big plans for the money. In fact, IRS Publication 2043 includes this caution: Don't count on getting a refund by a certain date to make major purchases or pay bills. Even though the IRS issues most refunds in less than 21 days, it’s possible their tax return may require additional review and take longer.

IRS Publication 2043 refund issuance caution

Since IRS Publication 2043 technically is for tax professionals, the caution excerpt above is aimed at them. It urges them to warn their clients not to spend, or count on, refund money until it has actually been delivered.

Issuances beyond 21 days: One of the reasons that the IRS cannot give any taxpayer a firm refund delivery date is that other factors often come into play during a return's processing.

Circumstances that could slow down processing, and hence the issuance of your tax refund, include —

  • Errors on the return,
  • An incomplete return, or one that needs further review,
  • Suspected identity theft or refund fraud, and
  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and/or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) claims.

The first three situations could be resolved quickly, or take a while. There's no way to know until the IRS starts its closer examination of the problematic Form 1040.

However, there is a date certain — or at least one to shoot for — when it comes to tax returns where filers seek the EITC or ACTC.

EITC, ACTC filers must wait: These two tax credits, like all credits, provide a dollar-for-dollar offset of any tax owed. But the EITC and ACTC also are refundable tax credits, which means that if the credit amount is more than what the taxpayer owes, the filer gets a refund of the excess credit amount.

The EITC and ACTC also are often erroneously claimed. Sometimes it's just an innocent filing mistake; they (particularly the EITC) are complicated and can be confusing. In other cases, though, taxpayers or unscrupulous preparers make knowingly false claims to get the refundable credit cash.

So in 2015, Congress mandated as part of the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes, or PATH, Act that the IRS put returns with these two tax credit claims on hold for further examination.

The IRS now is prevented by this law from issuing and refund on returns claiming these credits until Feb. 15 at the earliest.

Patience, and tracking, required: If this year's tax season starts at its usual late January opening date, the IRS could technically still meet its 21-day refund delivery goal. By the way, that 21-day timeframe is this weekend's By the Numbers figure, the first of 2024.

But don't count on getting your tax cash within three weeks. The refund delivery fact is that this part of the process is like all things tax. It's personal, and it depends on your facts and circumstances of your individual filing.

Every year, some filers get their refunds very quickly. Others, and believe me I hear from them, must wait much, much longer.

So rather than trying to come up with an exact date for your tax refund's arrival, do your best to file an accurate and complete Form 1040. File it electronically. And on that return, instruct the IRS to directly deposit your refund into a financial account.

Then be patient, or as patient at you can.

And remember, you always can check your expected IRS money's status by using the agency's Where's My Refund? online tracking tool.

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