The IRS has made improvements to its refund tracking tool that should help taxpayers better understand the status of their tax refunds.

The newly enhanced “Where’s My Refund” tool features:

  • messages with detailed refund status in plain language;
  • seamless access on mobile devices and with the IRS2Go app; and
  • notifications indicating whether the IRS needs additional information.

Reporting Statuses

The prior version of the tool had three notification statuses: return accepted, return in process, and refund issued.

Using the desktop version of the tool for an electronically filed return, the refund status was indeed more detailed and in plain language, as shown below.

Previously, the tool would not have provided the information on when to expect direct deposit. The tool would also not have provided detail concerning when a paper check had been issued or mailed to the taxpayer. It would simply state “refund issued.” At the time of this writing, the IRS had not responded to a request for the language used when results concern mailing of a refund check.

The IRS website notes that:

“Many different factors may affect the timing of refund delivery:

  • The tax return has errors, requires additional review or is incomplete.
  • The return needs a correction to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit.
  • The time between the IRS issuing the refund and the bank posting it to an account may vary since processing times fluctuate.”

Using the earlier version of the tool, results for returns that had been accepted for processing could get caught in the “in process” step for months. No other information would be provided to let a taxpayer know that additional information was required or if some other situation was causing the delay.

For example, refunds for returns that claim the Child Tax Credit and the EITC are held for review. They are not issued until after February 15 even if the returns were filed in early or mid-January.

The enhanced version of the tool provides a bit more information. Recently, a return with an IRS-issued identity-protection PIN returned a status of “Your return processing has been delayed beyond normal timeframes.” While this result provides more information than a simple “Your return is being processed,” the tax practitioner is left guessing that it is the presence of an IP PIN that is causing the delay. The return itself was, according to the practitioner, fairly straightforward with an average-sized refund for the amount of income reported.

A request to the IRS for specific language as to what happens when the agency needs additional information to process a return had not been answered at the time of this writing. “The IRS will contact taxpayers by mail if more information is needed to process a return,” according to a recent IRS news release. The release did not indicate when the taxpayer could expect to receive this correspondence.

Processing Times

It’s important to understand processing times when using the “Where’s My Refund” tool to check the status of a tax refund. The IRS news release states that a taxpayer’s refund status is available 24 hours after e-filing a current-year return, three or four days after e-filing a prior year return, and up to four weeks after filing a paper return. Faster refund tracking is one more reason to e-file your tax return, if you are able to do so.

The press release reminds taxpayers, “IRS phone and walk-in representatives can only research the status of a refund if:

  • 21 days or more have passed since a return was filed electronically.
  • Six weeks or more have passed since a return was mailed.
  • Where’s My Refund? tells the taxpayer to contact the IRS.”

Refunds For Deceased Taxpayers

When a taxpayer dies the person’s Social Security number gets locked by the Social Security Administration to prevent identity theft. Tax returns for deceased taxpayers can only be e-filed by a surviving spouse on jointly filed returns. Generally, tax returns for deceased taxpayers must be paper filed.

It is likely, but not confirmed by the IRS at the time of this writing that the “Where’s My Refund” tool will not work to check the refund status for a deceased taxpayer—not even if the paper-filed return has been received by the IRS and is currently being processed, and/or the refund has been issued.

It is equally likely that the tool will not tell the person making the inquiry the specific nature of the problem. For example, the status returned by the tool for a paper-filed return for a deceased taxpayer was that no records were found that matched the inquiry. The tool suggested reviewing the data entry. While reviewing the data entry is almost always a good idea, it is much more likely that if four to six weeks have passed since mailing a return for a deceased taxpayer, the only ways to check your refund status are contacting the IRS by phone or visiting a taxpayer assistance center.

Conclusion

Taxpayers wondering about the status of their refunds, especially those who e-file their tax returns and opt for direct deposit, should be pleased with the enhanced tax refund tool. Taxpayers should always use the online tracking tool before contacting their tax professional or the IRS for additional refund tracking assistance. The enhancements to the tool are imperfect but welcome, and the IRS appears committed to continuing to improve the tool as part of its efforts to better communicate with taxpayers.

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