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Where's my refund?!?

Still waiting for your refund check from Uncle Sam?

If you just recently posted your return, then you'll be biding your time a bit longer. But if you filed early and are still without your tax cash, there are some steps you can take to track it down.

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Generally, the Internal Revenue Service says if you filed electronically you should give its processors three weeks before checking your return's status. If you mailed in a paper return, the agency says it will take about double that -- six weeks -- before it can tell you exactly where in the tax pipeline your refund is.

Let your fingers do the checking
Once you've waited the recommended time, the easiest way to find out about your tax money is through calling the IRS' automated refund service at 1 (800) 829-1954.

When you do call, be ready to provide:

  • Your Social Security number. If it's a joint return, enter the first number shown on your return.
  • The filing status used.
  • The amount of your refund.

What's the holdup?
If the call reveals that the IRS is still working on your refund, there could be several reasons.

The most common causes of delay, according to the IRS, include math errors, an address change after filing the return, a name on the tax return that does not match the Social Security records, failure to sign the return or not sending the necessary attachments such as W-2s or schedules.

Any of these things could cause your refund to be slowed by as much as eight more weeks.

What if it's lost?
You called the status line and learned your check was mailed several weeks ago, but it still hasn't shown up. What now?

This time call the IRS help line at 1 (800) 829-1040. Be forewarned: Callers at this time of the year (just after the tax filing deadline) are likely to get a recorded message instead of personal help. In that case, try the IRS' How to Contact Us Web page for local and regional agency addresses and numbers.

Once the IRS verifies your refund check is lost or stolen, the replacement process will begin. You might be asked to complete Form 3911, Taxpayer Statement Regarding Refund, to get the ball rolling.

Wrong check arrived?
When the check finally arrives, sometimes there are more questions than answers.

If you get a refund and you weren't expecting one, or the check is for more than you thought you'd get, don't cash it. The IRS should send you a notice explaining the difference, along with any additional information or instructions.

You can call 1 (800) 829-1040 if you don't get an explanatory letter within two weeks of getting your questionable refund.

On the other hand, if your refund is less than you expected, go ahead and cash the check. If further investigation reveals that you should have received more, the IRS will make up the difference (plus a bit of interest if it takes more than 45 days to correct the error) and send you another check for the balance due.

Here again, you can call the 800 number for clarification of your refund amount.

Check your bank account
The IRS has one final piece of advice for anxious filers still looking for refund checks.

If you requested direct deposit, check your bank account regularly.

The IRS will simply transfer the money to your financial institution without sending you any other notification. It's up to you to find out if the refund is already in your account.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy
-- Updated: March 28, 2003
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