Every year, millions of taxpayers ask one question above all: When's my tax refund going to get here? In the past, the IRS was kind enough to provide a schedule that gave U.S. workers some guidance on when they could expect to get their hard-earned money back from the federal government. Yet over time, those firm schedules gave way to a more general set of guidelines.
As a result, it's impossible to provide a solid timetable for when to expect your tax refund. But the IRS does give taxpayers a sense of how long it takes for it to process returns, and it has established a track record of getting refunds back fairly quickly after completing its internal processing. The table below -- based on on that information -- offers reasonable estimates, albeit ones that won't necessarily hold true in your particular case.
Don't count on any tax refund schedule
The IRS has always been careful to urge taxpayers not to rely on any tax refund schedule in planning their finances. All too often, people count on having their refund by a given date, and take out short-term loans with the expectation that they'll be able to pay them back promptly once it arrives. If the payout is delayed, that causes even bigger financial problems.
The government shutdown has caused even more complications this year. Even the information that the IRS usually provides on refunds hasn't yet been updated for the new tax year -- the guidelines available still refer back to the refund period from 2018. And although the head of the IRS recently reassured taxpayers that refunds would go out even if the shutdown continued, the agency's past advice not to make plans based on speculative refund dates is still sound, given that your assumptions can overlook factors affecting both specific returns and the processing of refunds broadly.
Using historical trends to build an estimated 2019 tax refund schedule
The IRS has often said that 90% of refunds get to taxpayers within 21 days of their return being processed. That doesn't mean you'll avoid being among the 10% whose refund doesn't arrive within that time frame. But it's a reasonable starting point for coming up with a set of realistic assumptions to predict your tax refund schedule.
Specifically, the following schedule makes several assumptions in calculating dates:
- It uses the recent IRS announcement that filing season will start on Jan. 28.
- It assumes that refund issuance will take 21 days after the return is processed. That's longer than the number I've used in previous years, but I think the combination of the late 2017 tax overhaul and the current government shutdown warrants being more conservative.
- It assumes that paper returns will take four weeks to get to the IRS and get processed.
- It assumes that if you request a paper refund check, it will take 14 days to get to you by mail. That's based on the IRS saying that you shouldn't call the agency until six weeks after mailing your paper return to inquire about a refund.
With those assumptions in mind, here's an anticipated 2019 tax refund schedule.
Date You File
Refund Date If E-File + Direct Deposit
Refund Date If E-File + Mail Refund
Refund Date If Paper-File + Direct Deposit
Refund Date If Paper-File + Mail Refund
The best way to find out about your refund
Rather than relying on this schedule, the better alternative is to use the IRS Where's My Refund online tool. If you e-file your return, you can check in after 24 hours to see when your refund is likely to come. If you file a paper return, you'll have to wait four weeks after you mail it for information to start being available.
As the chart makes clear, electronic filing significantly reduces the time you'll wait for your refund. So does requesting the money be deposited directly into your bank account.
What not to do
Again, it's important to understand this tax refund schedule is an estimate -- the IRS won't follow it. You could get your refund faster or slower than it suggests.
In addition, there are rules that govern refunds that can slow matters down in certain cases -- some of them quite common. For instance, if you receive the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit, the IRS isn't allowed to issue a refund before mid-February -- regardless of when you file or when the return gets processed.
Above all, don't assume you'll get your refund on any specific date in making financial plans. Counting on that money coming in by a particular day will just get you in trouble.
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