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Tax season is approaching fast. When can you expect a tax refund, and how is it affected by what's going on with the government?

Tax season is undeniably a stressful time for many Americans. If there's a light at the end of that tunnel, it's the knowledge that you may well be eligible for a nice tax refund afterward.

If you're anticipating a refund, you may be wondering when you can reasonably assume it will come so you can plan your finances and spending in a timely manner. There are usually some tells for a rough estimate when you'll be getting it. But new rules and laws - not to mention the fact that the government is currently shut down - have thrown everything into more chaos than usual.

You need to get your tax documents ready to send to the Internal Revenue Service, ideally sooner rather than later. So, what is the prospective tax refund schedule for the upcoming tax season, and what might impact it?

Federal Tax Refund Schedule

There is no set, precise schedule for when you would be receive a tax refund. Estimates of when yours would most likely come are generally based on two things: how you filed your taxes, and how you're receiving your refund.

The ways you can file your tax return, be it by yourself or through an accountant, is either online (e-filing) or via paper mail. Similarly, the primary ways your refund can be sent to you is either via a direct deposit to your bank account or a check sent to you in the mail.

More often than not, if you're getting a tax refund you'll get it by 21 days after the IRS has accepted your tax returns. So after three weeks there's a good chance you will have your refund. If it takes longer - say, a month or two - it may be because you mailed them instead of filing them online while also getting your refund in check form instead of a quicker direct deposit.

Should all the information on your tax forms be correct and up to date, your tax returns should be accepted not long after submitting them. Essentially, if you did everything right on a simple enough tax return, you'll likely receive your refund in about three weeks after submitting it. So make sure to keep your tax records, as well as important forms like your 1040.

How to Track Your Federal Tax Refund

Three weeks isn't a long time, but it can certainly feel that way. If you feel so inclined, there are ways to track your tax refund.

The IRS has both a desktop and mobile way to find the status of your tax refund. You are able to find out the status after 24 hours if you e-filed your tax return, and after four weeks if you did it by mail. Statuses on tax refunds are updated overnight, per the IRS website.

To do this, you will need to provide either your social security number or IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), your filing status, and the amount you will be receiving for your refund. The IRS's app, IRS2Go, also lets you check your refund status among other capabilities.

In addition, it's possible to call the IRS to ask about your tax refund status. However, they recommend using this only if it has been longer than three weeks since you e-filed or six weeks since you mailed your return, or if the IRS's "Where's the Refund?" program tells you to call instead of showing your status.

Why Might Your Refund Be Delayed?

There are several reasons your refund may end up delayed beyond the way you sent your return or receive the refund. Some of these reasons include:

  • Inaccurate information in your tax returns, including personal information or mathematical errors in taxes owed that requires fixing
  • Inaccurate direct deposit information
  • You claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit. The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act states that in this case the IRS cannot issue you a refund until mid-February at the earliest. If you filed your taxes in late January and claimed one of these tax credits, the IRS may be waiting until Feb. 15.
  • The IRS has suspicion of identity theft
  • Filing late in the tax season when the IRS is receiving the most amount of tax returns
  • You have a form of debt (such as child support) that allows the IRS to withhold your refund.

State Tax Refund

State tax refunds can differ somewhat from federal refunds, and if you want to know the status of this refund, you'll have to check your state's official website to see if they let you check the status.

Luckily, most states let you check the status, and many of those web pages even tell you how long it generally takes the state to process your refund. California, for example, lets you check your refund status while also claiming that e-filed returns generally take two weeks to process and paper filed returns take four weeks. In New Jersey, e-filed returns take around four weeks to be fully processed and validated while a paper filed one will take 12 weeks.

Like with the IRS's website, to see the status of your refund on state websites you will need to provide your Social Security number and the amount you're expecting in your refund.

When Can You Start Filing and What Is the Deadline?

The IRS recently announced that it would begin processing returns for this tax season on Monday Jan. 28, 2019.

As always, the majority of the country has until April 15 to submit their returns. The exceptions to this rule are the District of Columbia, Massachusetts and Maine. D.C. celebrates Emancipation Day on April 15, so April 16 is their deadline; Massachusetts and Maine celebrate Patriots' Day on the 15th and have until April 17.

Will the Government Shutdown Delay Tax Refunds?

The IRS sent out the press release of a Jan. 28 start despite the government still being shut down, and many Americans are wondering how the shutdown will affect refunds.

The White House has stated that the IRS will be giving out tax refunds, even if the government remains shut down when Jan. 28 rolls around. If the shutdown is still ongoing, though, expect delays regardless. The IRS would be working with a significantly smaller workforce to handle its usual amount of tax returns.

Even without a shutdown, there has been concern about whether the IRS will be able to handle this workload in a timely manner. A September 2018 report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration claimed there was a higher risk of the upcoming tax season being delayed, due to the changes created by the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

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