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IRS holds $1.3 billion in unclaimed refunds

Forget about your 2009 tax return for a minute. If you didn't file one for 2006, you might be missing out on some money from back then. But you're quickly running out of time to claim it.

Three years ago, more than 1.4 million individuals apparently decided they had better things to do than file their 2006 tax returns, even though they were due refunds. In total, more than $1.3 billion worth of refunds from that tax year is still sitting in the Internal Revenue Service account.

Taxpayers can still get their old refund checks, which the IRS says could amount to more than $800 for some folks. But the claim, via a 2006 Form 1040, must be made by April 15. After that, the federally allowed three-year window of opportunity from the original filing deadline, which was April 2006, closes forever and Uncle Sam gets to keep the cash.

The IRS estimates that the median refund -- meaning half of the checks will be larger and half smaller -- is $604, and the money is owed to nonfiling taxpayers in every state and the District of Columbia, as well as to residents of U.S. territories and military filers who didn't file returns that year.

California is home to the most taxpayers, almost 160,000, who didn't send in returns years ago, accounting for almost $151 million of the total unclaimed pot. But New Hampshire residents will likely collect larger checks. The Granite State's median unclaimed refund is $706.

5 states with most unclaimed refunds
StateUnclaimed refundsMedian refund amount
California159,700$554
Texas109,600$653
Florida101,700$641
New York76,700$666
Illinois51,400$655

Technically, the biggest refunds, with a median unclaimed check of $887, are owed to 200 taxpayers who live in U.S. possessions and territories. A close second are the almost 5,000 taxpaying members of the military stationed in various locations who didn't file three years ago. Armed forces members left a median check of $821 in the IRS' hands.

In addition to the regular refund amount, a 2006 return will get most taxpayers at least $30 and possibly up to $60 in extra cash back from the government. This money is courtesy of the repealed Telephone Excise Tax Refund. It was paid out based on the number of exemptions taxpayers claimed on their 2006 returns.

Not an uncommon oversight

Despite the staggering amount, the IRS says that unclaimed refund money is not that unusual.

Each year, some people don't file a return because they don't owe taxes. But without the documentation, these folks won't get any refunds they're due. The IRS doesn't send refunds until it gets a Form 1040 (or 1040A or 1040EZ) that details just how big the government's check should be.

Other taxpayers had income tax withheld, but didn't have to file a return because they earned too little. But the only way they can get the withheld money back is to file a return.

Then there are individuals who were eligible for but didn't take the earned income tax credit. This is a tax break for workers who don't earn much. It can actually rebate cash to qualified filers -- even those who owe nothing.

In 2006, individuals qualified for the earned income credit if they made less than $14,120 and were childless; earned less than $34,001 and had one child; or earned no more than $38,348 and had two or more kids at home.

No penalty, but no payoff either

There is no penalty for late-filing in cases where the taxpayer is due a refund. However, if you subsequently ran up an IRS bill that you didn't pay or you owe another debt of concern to the government, such as child support or a student loan, you may not get all of your 2005 refund. In these cases, once the nonfiler finally gets a return to the IRS, the tax cash will be applied to outstanding charges before any remainder is refunded.

If you think some of the refund stash is yours, you can download a 2006 Form 1040 from the IRS Web site. If you need an old 1040A or 1040EZ instead, you can find them at the agency's index of past-year forms.

Be sure to check out the 2007 and 2008 documents, too, if you didn't file a return for those years either. The IRS won't send you your 2006 cash unless you filed in subsequent years.

And you'd better do it soon. After April 15, your refund money stays in Uncle Sam's pocket.

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