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Finding out if the IRS check is in the mail

Still waiting for your refund check from Uncle Sam?

If you didn't post your return until April 15 then you'll be biding your time a bit longer. But if you filed earlier, there are some steps you can take to track down your tax money.

Generally, the Internal Revenue Service says if you filed electronically you should give its processors around a week before checking your return's status. If you mailed in a paper 1040, the agency says it could take up to a month before it can tell you exactly where in the tax pipeline your refund is.

Business returns tend to take about six weeks. And if you amended your filing, you'll have to wait eight to 12 weeks before the refund arrives.

Internet investigation
After you've waited the recommended time, the easiest way to find out about your tax money is to head to the IRS Web site, where you'll find the agency's refund locator. Once there, 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.

The online program will tell you if the IRS has processed your return and give you a date that your refund will be sent. The information is updated each weekend, so if you don't get an expected refund date the first time you check, the IRS suggests you wait another week for the latest data before logging on again.

Dialing for tax dollars
If you prefer, you can get your refund's status by calling 1-800-829-1954, the IRS's special automated toll-free refund line. To complete the call, you'll need the same information required by the Web refund tracker.

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The agency's TeleTax line at 1-800-829-4477 also lets you locate refund money. But this number serves several purposes, including connections to prerecorded tax topics. You'll have to punch in a few more digits to get to the refund-tracking menu.

Regardless of which number you call, the same update time applies. So if you don't find your refund information on the first call, wait at least another week for the data to be updated before you redial.

What's the holdup?
If the Web check or phone 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 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? It's time to get some personal help from the IRS.

Call the agency's main help line at 1-800-829-1040, but don't push the option (number 2) for tracking down a refund. That will send you to an automated system where you'll be instructed to go to the Web site to determine your refund's status.

Instead, select option number 1, questions about filing or preparing your tax return. Once in this area, punching number 4 will send you to an IRA representative. But be forewarned: Callers trying to get through just after the tax-filing deadline are likely to get a recorded message instead of personal help. Even when you do get a real IRS representative on the phone, it could be after a long wait. You might have better (or more immediate) luck by checking the IRS's How to Contact Us Web page for local and regional agency addresses and numbers.

Once your conversation with the IRS verifies that 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.

-- Updated: April 20, 2004


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See Also
IRS recommendations on which records to keep, for how long
Hanging onto small business records
Wrong address can mean a lost tax refund
Good recordkeeping can maximize business deductions
Tax-filing mistakes to avoid

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