So, there’s some good news: The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is processing paper tax returns.
And then there’s some not-so-good news: The estimated backlog of unopened IRS mail stands at 11 million.
That’s the report from Sunita Lough, IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement, and is consistent with statements made at the beginning of June when the IRS started re-opening offices. It makes sense since, as Lough notes, the typically receives about a million pieces of mail per week. Lough made the comments at the annual NYU School of Professional Studies Tax Controversy Forum (it’s still going on today, and it’s free, re-broadcasts are also available).
Of course, that’s just the backlog and doesn’t include mail that’s still pouring in. Remember that the filing deadline has been extended to July 15 (just under a month away), so the IRS will be expecting more mail. In April, Lough had warned about the potential backlog.
Realistically, that means that taxpayers who filed returns by paper have experienced significant tax refund delays. While most taxpayers file electronically, about 10% of individual taxpayers still file by mail: that amounts to 15 to 16 million people. And that doesn’t include those taxpayers who have filed amended returns (previously, amended returns could only be submitted on paper). As of January 2020 – that’s pre-pandemic – the IRS advised that processing amended returns could take up to 16 weeks (not a typo: 16 weeks).
According to the IRS website, if you have filed a paper return, it will be processed in the order it’s received.
If this feels like deja vu all over again, you’re not wrong. In January of 2019, after the partial government shutdown ended, the IRS acknowledged a backlog of nearly 5 million pieces of unopened mail. It took months for the IRS to tackle all of that correspondence: with numbers twice that high now (and some IRS employees still not back to work), expect similar delays.
So what’s a taxpayer to do? For now, there’s not a lot that you can do except to be patient. But here are some quick tips:
- If you haven’t yet filed, file electronically, if possible. That will result in faster processing (and you’ll get your tax refund more quickly).
- If you have submitted your tax return but haven’t received your refund, don’t call the IRS (they won’t answer) or file a second return (that will complicate matters and won’t get you an answer or refund any more quickly).
- You can check the status of your refund online with the “Where’s My Refund?” Tool.
- You can check the status of your amended tax return online with the “Amended Return Status” Tool.