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How to get your tax refund as quickly as possible

IRS begins processing returns Monday
IRS begins processing returns Monday 03:07

Itching to get your federal income tax refund now that the IRS, along with other agencies that had been closed during the shutdown, has finally re-opened for business? After all, in 2018 more than three-quarters of filers got money back, with checks averaging around $3,000, and some estimates suggest this year's refunds could be as much as 25 percent higher.

Before we share some tips on getting your dough, consider what getting a tax refund really means. While many people get money back because of smart year-end tax planning or because of changes in their financial situation, for others a refund simply suggests they overpaid their taxes -- that means less cash flow over the course of the year.

On the bright side, overpaying can be a form of forced savings (I'd be more in favor of that if the U.S. government paid interest on your money.). But if you're among the millions who expect to get a refund this year, here's how to get it as quickly as possible.

Online tax prep

About half of all individuals prepare and file their returns on their own, mostly with a computer program. While many online tax-prep services are available, the most widely used, reviewed and recommended are Intuit's TurboTax or the suite of online services offered by H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt.

How will Tax Cuts & Jobs Act impact returns? 03:09

One of the benefits of using an online service from either H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt is that you can start out using their online service and then -- if you decide you need the meet face-to-face with a tax professional -- you can walk into one of their thousands of tax-prep centers, where they'll review, prepare and file your return. TurboTax also has tax pros available online via chat and on the phone who can help you.  

E-filing

Over 90 percent of all individual tax returns are filed electronically. If you use tax-preparation software, the e-filing process is straightforward. It follows three steps: electronically "sign" your return, transmit it to the IRS (and your state) and save a copy for yourself. The two major benefits of e-filing are that it's the fastest way to get your return accepted and processed by the IRS, and you'll instantly get an electronic postmark certifying that your return was electronically filed.

Direct deposit

This is the fastest and most flexible way to get your refund delivered. Last year over 85 percent of refunds were direct deposits into the taxpayer's account.

You can elect to have yours split up among as many as three different accounts at U.S. financial institutions. Use Form 8888 Allocation of Refund, and make sure to provide the correct account and routing numbers on the form.

Just be aware that if you try to direct deposit a refund from a jointly filed tax return into an individually owned bank account, some financial institutions will put a hold on the deposit, which will delay getting your money. Make sure you check with your bank to ensure it will accept the direct deposit before you make this election.

Here's how long you can expect to wait to receive your refund depending on how you file and how you receive it.

  • Six weeks or more, if you file by paper and request a paper check.
  • Four weeks or more, if you file electronically and request a refund by paper check.
  • About 10 business days, if you e-file and elect direct deposit.

Many tax preparers offer you instant cash based on your tax refund. We'll cover those services in a follow-up article.

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