Why let Uncle Sam hold on to your tax refund any longer than necessary? Avoiding a few common pitfalls while preparing your return can mean the difference between waiting about two weeks for your refund instead of months.
The average dollar amount of this year's refund is slightly higher than in 2007, according to CCH, a tax information provider. Refunds for tax returns filed as of Feb. 22, 2008 averaged $2,700 -- 2% higher than last year's average $2,650 refund. Overall, the government is benefiting from an interest-free loan of more than $106 billion so far this year, according to CCH.
That's all the more reason to get your refund as quickly as possibly.
Here are a few tips from the pros on avoiding delays:
1. File Electronically
Americans are catching on to the benefits of filing electronically, according to David Bergstein, CPA, a CCH tax analyst. Taxpayers have filed more than 38 million tax returns electronically so far this tax year, compared to 36 million this time in 2007. The greatest growth in e-filing is from individuals using home computers, he says.
Relying on snail mail can be just as much of a mistake during the electronic era as adding incorrectly, says Mark Steber, vice president of tax resources for
Jackson Hewitt Tax Service
in Parsippany, N.J. "It's more accurate and there are many safeguards built into the e-filing process," he says.
For example, the electronic process easily identifies when an incorrect social security number accompanies a person's name -- a feature that could prevent income information from being attributed to the wrong person. Taxpayers also receive immediate verification that the IRS has received the return. Refunds can arrive as quickly as within eight to 10 days, he says. But the process can take between four and six weeks when filing a paper return -- assuming that it's correct.
Steber says he once lacked confidence in the electronic filing system, but changed his mind about five years ago, when his paper return ultimately arrived late because of insufficient postage. "I was one stamp short," he recalls.
2. Include the Correct Social Security Numbers
Errors involving Social Security numbers, which are now easily identified by e-filing, may slow the processing of your return. "You certainly want to file electronically to speed up your refund -- but with the correct information," says Charles Barragato, a New York-based CPA and director of the School of Professional Accountancy at Long Island University in Brookville, N.Y.
Women who change their surnames upon marriage without notifying the Social Security Administration are likely to encounter problems, he says. The solution is to either to obtain a social security number under the new married name -- a process that can take at least four to six weeks -- or to refile under the maiden name and correct the information with the Social Security Administration after tax season, he says.
3. Choose Direct Deposit
Taxpayers who combine direct deposit with e-filing can receive their refund, on average, in less than two weeks, according to CCH. Direct-deposit requests are up 5% to date this year over the same time last year, it says. Taxpayers using direct deposit may also split their refund into as many as three different accounts, including an IRA account for a 2008 distribution.
Michelle Maton, a financial planner with Chicago-based Aequus Wealth Management Resources, says clients often express concern about direct deposit. "I don't trust it," is a common refrain, she says. However, she recalls working with taxpayers who have either lost checks or inadvertently thrown them away -- and then had to obtain duplicates from the IRS.
4. Use Software if You Don't Consult a Preparer
Tax preparation software is a huge time saver, even for number-savvy individuals, says Bergstein of CCH. Programs such as Turbo Tax from
or TaxCut from
typically handle most math computations, thereby minimizing the risk of errors that could prolong processing.
"A lot of people procrastinate because they just dread the thought of sitting down and staring at those tax forms and the nearly 100-page instruction manual to try to figure out where to start, let alone finish," Bergstein says. "Tax software that uses a straightforward interview format leads taxpayers through the process step-by-step, asking only information that's relevant to their situation."
5. Don't Wait Until the Last Day
"The earlier you file, the faster the turn-around," says Maton, the financial planner. Filing this week will result in a shorter processing time than filing on April 15, when the IRS has an even larger workload, she says. But filing earlier may not be possible for everyone. E-filers, however, receive a target date for when their refund may arrive, she says.
"So, you can at least be looking for it," she says.
Suzanne Barlyn is a writer in Washington Crossing, Pa.