The Month After: Refund Status, Lost Checks and Tax Planning

Tomorrow (May 18) marks exactly one month after Tax Day 2011. I know, just a month, right? It feels a lot longer to those of us in the tax profession.

This is about the time that many folks start peering at their bank balances and wondering where the heck their refund checks are. If you’re one of those folks, here are a few tips:

  • Use the IRS’ online tool to check on the status of your refund.
  • Call the IRS at 1.800.829.1040.
  • Use an app on your Droid or iPhone. It’s free and you can download it from the Apple App store or from your Droid Marketplace. It takes a few seconds.

No matter which method you opt to use, you’ll need to have some basic information handy. You’ll need your Social Security Number, filing status as reported on your 2010 return and your expected refund amount. Keep in mind that this information won’t be available until 72 hours after e-filing and 3-4 weeks after filing a paper return. If you filed on paper on Tax Day, this is just about the right time to start asking questions.

You can use the automated systems almost any time but it’s not available on Mondays from 12:00 am (Midnight) to 3:00 am Eastern Time. The system may also occasionally be unavailable in the middle of the night while the IRS updates the system, so try checking during the day.

If you amended your return this year by using a federal form 1040X, Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, you’re not going to be able to use the automated system. You’ll need to call the IRS at 1.800.829.1040 and actually talk to someone. Keep in mind that it takes longer to process amended returns – a lot longer. You need to wait at least 8 to 12 weeks before you call. If you call before then, the IRS will likely politely (ahem) ask you to call back later.

With respect to a refund check that you already received but misplaced/lost/shredded/washed/was eaten by the dog, you can get a new one. File a claim for a new check online using the IRS online tool or if it’s been more than 28 days since the check was issued, call the IRS at 1.800.829.1040 to get a replacement check.

If your check is smaller than you expected, you can cash it now and figure out what happened later. However, if you’ve received a refund check that you weren’t expecting, or for an amount larger than you were expecting, don’t cash it just yet; the IRS is going to want it back if it’s a mistake. Either way, you should expect a notice that explains what happened.

It’s also a good time to look at the amount of your return and think about whether you might need to make some changes for this year. A large refund that’s not tied to a significant life event (adoption or purchase of a new home, for example) might indicate that a review of your form W-4 is in order.

If you’re on extension, you have five months left to get your return to the IRS, assuming that you don’t fall under a specific exception. That feels like a long time but if you’re like me, you still have graduation, summer camps, birthday parties, back to school (eke!) and a slew of other obligations on the calendar between now and the due date. Start looking through your records now and figure out what you need to do in order to file your tax return by the due date. You don’t want to be rushing to the post office on October 17 (yes, you get another break this year since October 15 falls on a Saturday).

Finally, since your tax professional is likely experiencing a little bit of a lull in business right now – and possibly tanned and in a good mood as a result of a well-deserved post tax season vacation – it’s a good time to pick up the phone and schedule a review. You don’t want to wait until next April to figure out how best to offset your capital gains (if you’re lucky), sale of your home or proposed stock buyout. A thorough review now will make next year so much easier and we all want that, right?

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