Taxes

No Tax Refund Yet? Why Your IRS Money Might Be Late

If it's been longer than three weeks, and you haven't received your tax refund, learn the most likely reasons.

Tax return errors will slow down a tax refund, but other delays are less avoidable.
Sarah Tew/CNET

This story is part of Taxes 2022, CNET's coverage of the best tax software and everything else you need to get your return filed quickly, accurately and on-time.

Taxes were due two weeks ago. If you're not one of the roughly 130 million tax filers who've submitted their 2021 tax returns, you need to do it as soon as possible to claim your tax refund or avoid penalties and interest if you owe.

Filing your tax return electronically with direct deposit should give you a tax refund in about 21 days, according to the IRS. If you've been waiting longer than three weeks and no refund has arrived yet, there could be a problem or your tax situation may simply require additional processing.

In a March bulletin, the IRS noted that some tax refunds can take a bit longer than the expected 21-day period and also warned taxpayers "not to rely on receiving a refund by a certain date, especially when making major purchases or paying bills." 

Here are 10 of the most common reasons IRS money is delayed this year. For more, find the best free tax software, see how to track your refund to your bank account or mailbox, and learn how to create an online IRS account.

Your tax return has errors or is incomplete

When you file your tax return, it's important to cross-check any information you've included to make sure it's accurate. For instance, don't mix up the numbers of state taxes withheld with federal taxes withheld. Before you submit your taxes to the IRS, simply take a second look to fix any potential errors and make sure you've filled out each field.

Also, if you received child tax credit payments last year, make sure the amount on Letter 6419 matches the amount you received. If an incorrect amount is entered, the IRS will need to further review your tax return, which the agency says will result in an "extensive delay."

Note that if there's a problem that needs to be fixed after you submit your return, the IRS will first try to proceed without contacting you. That means it could be days or weeks before you know there's a problem.

You owe the IRS money

If you owe back taxes to the IRS, the agency may take some or all of your tax refund to pay off that debt. If your refund contains more money than you owe, you'll receive the remaining balance via direct deposit or check in the mail, but it could be delayed. Taxpayers whose refunds are used by the IRS to cover existing payment obligations should receive a CP49 notice in the mail. 

Even if you don't owe the IRS money, the agency can keep your tax refund money if you have other debts to state or federal agencies. The Treasury Offset Program enables the IRS to take all or part of your tax refund to pay obligations such as child support, state taxes or unemployment compensation repayments. Such debts could delay the arrival of your remaining tax refund or eliminate it completely.

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Your banking information is incorrect

Have you changed bank accounts since you last filed your taxes? If so, pay close attention to what the direct deposit information says when submitting your return this year. If you accidentally forget to update it with your new direct deposit details, your refund will be sent back to the IRS. This will likely result in a paper check being mailed to your house, which could take several weeks longer to arrive.

You filed a paper tax return

This year, the IRS is encouraging taxpayers to file electronically and set up direct deposit to get their refunds back more quickly. With mail delays, it could take a while for the IRS to receive your return in the mail and even longer to issue a paper check. 

Filing your return online instead of through the mail is more important than ever this year to avoid refund delays, the IRS says. Instead of a paper tax return, use one of these free online tax filing services so you don't have to wait to receive your money.

You didn't properly enter your stimulus payments

In 2021, most Americans received a third stimulus check payment related to the COVID-19 pandemic. While that money is non-taxable, it needs to be reconciled on your tax return if you are claiming the recovery rebate credit.

In recent testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee, IRS Commissioner Charles P. Retting said that in 2020, the IRS "received far more than 10 million returns" where taxpayers failed to properly reconcile their stimulus payments with the amounts entered for their recovery rebate credits. Those returns require a manual review and create lengthy delays.

If you plan to claim the recovery rebate credit on your tax return, learn how to avoid this error using IRS Letter 6475 or your online IRS account.

child-tax-credit-stimulus-payment-cash-300-a-month-per-kid-2021-cnet-how-to-claim-015

To get a prompt tax refund, be sure to enter your advance child tax payments correctly.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You filed Form 8379, Injured Spouse Allocation

It sounds painful, but this form has nothing to do with physical injuries or disabilities.

When a married couple filing jointly owes a federal debt, the IRS may seize their tax refund in order to offset the money that they owe. If only one half of the couple owes money, the other partner can be considered "injured" and request at least part of the expected tax refund. Enter IRS Form 8379.

While not as common as some of the other causes, this tax-refund delay is significant. According to the instructions of Form 8379, taxpayers filing the form should expect up to 14 weeks of processing time, or up to 11 weeks if filing electronically.

The IRS suspects identity theft

If the IRS flags a tax return for having a possible chance of identity theft, the agency will hold your refund until your identity is verified. When that occurs, you'll likely receive a 5071C letter that provides instructions for proving your identity. If your tax return is legitimate, don't panic -- an IRS letter doesn't mean there is proof of identity theft, merely a suspicion.

Taxpayers can verify their identity on the IRS website, which currently requires creating an ID.me account, or by calling a dedicated phone number listed on the IRS letter. If those methods fail, you'll need to schedule an in-person appointment at a local IRS office.

One method for avoiding identity-theft-related delays is to create an "Identity Protection PIN" or IP-PIN. This unique six-digit ID is known only to you and the IRS and prevents anyone else from filing a return in your name. The IP PIN will only last for one year -- you'll need to create a new one next tax season if you want the same level of identity protection. You'll need an ID.me account to create an IP PIN online, although it is possible to acquire an IP PIN using IRS Form 15227 (PDF) and a telephone interview or in-person appointment.

You filed Form 1040-NR to request refund of tax withheld on a Form 1042-S 

While this reason is rare, it can cause a lengthy delay in your tax refund. Non-resident foreigners in the US who earn taxable income may receive Form 1042-S, Foreign Person's U.S. Source Income Subject to Withholding. This form often applies to non-Americans who receive scholarships while attending college in the US.

To get the money withheld back in the form of a tax refund, foreigners who receive 1042-S forms will need to file a 1040-NR return. The IRS says that it needs more time to process these returns, up to six months after the return is filed or when the 1040-NR was due, whichever is later.

You filed an amended tax return

It can happen to anyone -- you forgot a form or a major deduction or you accidentally picked the wrong filing status. If the change to your return is big enough, you'll want to file an amended return. The IRS allows anyone who files their tax return electronically to also e-file their amended return, but only for the current year.

If you do file an amended return, you'll need to practice patience. The IRS warns that amended returns can take up to 16 weeks to be processed. Before filing an amended return, you may want to wait to receive the tax refund from your original return. The IRS can often correct small errors and adjust your tax refund accordingly. The agency provides an online tool for helping you determine if you should file an amended return.

Your return needs further review

As mentioned above, if you see a message saying that your tax return needs further review by the IRS, you can expect your refund to arrive later than the average three weeks. For instance, if you receive a CP07 Notice, it means the IRS has received your tax return and is holding your refund until it completes a more thorough review. You might get this notice if you're claiming treaty benefits or deductions on the Schedule A section (PDF) of your taxes.

If the agency finds no issues, your refund could arrive within six to 12 weeks, assuming no taxes are owed. If the IRS does find issues with your return, it'll send you a notice with instructions on what to do within that same period. That means you'll get your refund months later than you anticipated.

For more information, here are the most important dates and deadlines for filing your taxes. Also, here are 10 tax changes that could affect the size of your refund, and 13 tax deductions and credits to boost your refund.