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Happy Tax Day! Your refund may be delayed

Tax Day: What you need to know
Tax Day: What you need to know 04:51

Tax Day is here, with returns due by the end of July 15 — a three-month extension from the traditional April 15 filing date. Yet while your taxes are due today, you may face a long wait for your tax refund. 

"We're experiencing delays in processing paper tax returns due to limited staffing," the IRS said Wednesday on its website. More than 20 million taxpayers took advantage of the later tax filing deadline, according to research from financial services firm IPX1031. 

While the IRS said delays are mostly affecting people who filed paper returns, some taxpayers who filed electronically have also reported long waits for their refunds as well as trouble getting answers since the agency temporarily mothballed its Taxpayer Assistance Letters and phone lines. 

Laura McGough, a college professor in Northampton, Massachusetts, said she filed her electronic return on March 10 — and is still waiting for her refund of more than $2,000. "It's really hard to wrap your head around. There's no one to call, no one to talk to."

Because of a move, McGough's address and her bank account information changed, which she suspects could be at the root of the delay. By contrast, McGough was among the first group of taxpayers to get a federal stimulus check — the government-issued cash payments to Americans aimed at softening the financial blow from the coronavirus pandemic — earlier this year. 

She added, "I don't get the gap between me receiving the stimulus check, but not even being able to contact someone about my return."

Because the typical tax refund amounts to roughly $2,900, Americans often count on the money to pay bills or make major purchases, which means a delay can crimp spending and complicate financial planning. 

How long a delay?

The IRS says nine of 10 tax refunds are issued in less than 21 days. However, as of mid-May the agency had yet to process almost 5 million taxpayer returns. That means refund delays of weeks or months for those filers, according to Erin Collins, the National Taxpayer Advocate, an independent organization within the IRS that helps taxpayers and protects their rights.

The IRS says most of the delays affect people who filed paper returns. Part of the problem is that the agency's limited staffing during the pandemic is creating a lengthy backlog in dealing with those paper returns, the agency acknowledges.

"Many different factors can affect the timing of a refund. In some cases, a tax return may require additional review," the IRS said on Wednesday. "It is also important to consider the time it takes for a financial institution to post the refund to an account or for a refund check to be delivered by mail."

Can I check the status of my tax refund?

Yes, but only if you filed electronically. People who e-filed can go to "Where's my refund?" 24 hours after they filed to check the status of their money. The site will tell them when their tax return was received, when the refund is approved and the date the refund will be issued.

Those who filed paper returns are out of luck, however. The IRS says taxpayers shouldn't call to ask about their refunds, and added that paper returns are handled in the order they're received. 

The IRS says it updates its data on the "Where's my refund?" site once a day, typically overnight.

Will I get interest on my refund? 

This year, people who got their refunds after April 15 will receive interest on the payment from the IRS. This is unusual because the agency typically doesn't pay interest on tax overpayments, which is why financial experts often describe refunds as interest-free loans to the government.

But the IRS last month said it would pay interest on individual 2019 refunds reflected on returns filed by July 15. The interest will accrue from April 15 until the date when the refund is sent to the taxpayer. That may provide some comfort to people waiting for the refunds — especially because the rates are much higher than the typical 1% paid by most savings accounts. 

The IRS said the rate for the second quarter ended June 30 is 5% per year (compounded daily). That rate will decline to 3% for the third quarter (which ends September 30).

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