Tax season is here. Here's how to get your refund fast.

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Three-quarters of all Americans get an annual tax refund from the IRS, which often is a family's biggest check of the year. But this tax season could see a repeat of last year's snarls in processing, when about 30 million taxpayers had their returns — and refunds — held up by the IRS. 

Treasury Department officials warned on Monday that this year's tax season will be a challenge once the IRS starts processing returns on January 24. That's largely due to the IRS' sizable backlog of returns from 2021. As of December 23, the agency had 6 million unprocessed individual returns — a significant reduction from a backlog of 30 million in May, but far higher than the 1 million unprocessed returns that is more typical around the start of tax season. 

“The first thing you know if you are going to cook a meal, you have to have the kitchen cleaned up from the last meal,” said Mark W. Everson, vice chairman at Alliantgroup and former Commissioner of Internal Revenue at the IRS. “It just snowballs into a terrible situation.”

Compounding the challenge, tax preparers told CBS MoneyWatch that it remains hard to reach IRS personnel on the phone. Last year, the IRS answered less than 30% of the calls it received, according to Treasury officials.

“Back in the old days, you'd wait 5-10 minutes and get an IRS agent on the phone,” said Christian Cyr, a CPA and president and chief investment officer at Cyr Financial. But now, he said, his CPAs have waited hours to speak with an IRS employee, with no guarantee of ever reaching one. 

Ensuring smooth tax filing comes with a lot on the line, given that the average refund last year was about $2,800. Below are tips from tax experts and the IRS on how to ensure a swift tax refund.

File electronically

This is a step the IRS is strongly urging this year. Although some people may simply like filing paper returns — and others may have no choice — the agency says that taxpayers who file electronically are more likely to have their returns processed quickly. 

That's because the IRS relies on computers to electronically process filed returns, while paper returns must be handled by human employees. In the early days of the pandemic, the IRS shut its offices and employees stopped opening mail — delaying processing of paper returns.

Even aside from employee strains due to the pandemic, the IRS' staffing hasn't kept up with population growth. The agency's workforce is now the same size it was in 1970, despite the population growing by 60%. That means fewer workers to handle a greater volume of returns.

About 10 million people filed paper returns last year, or about 7% of the 148 million returns filed in 2021, according to data from the Taxpayer Advocate Service. Tax experts urge people to join the roughly 138 million taxpayers who are already using e-filing.

Get your refund via direct deposit

The IRS also recommends that taxpayers arrange to get their refunds by direct deposit. The agency says the fastest way to get your money is to use the combination of e-filing with direct deposit, which sends the money into your bank account. 

About 95 million people received refunds last year, with about 87 million of them opting for direct deposit. Most taxpayers who file electronically and choose direct deposit will get their refund within 21 days, assuming there are no problems with the return, according to the IRS.

Don't guesstimate 

The IRS checks its data against the figures taxpayers detail on their returns. If there's a discrepancy — say your W2 shows that you earned $60,000, but you write on the return that you earned $58,000 — the return is flagged for manual review by an employee. 

Once that happens, it's likely your tax return will face a delay of weeks or even months. That's why tax experts advise people to check forms carefully to ensure they're reporting data accurately. Filling out your tax return shouldn't rely on “word of mouth or the honor system,” Cyr said. “I guarantee that will cause delays.”

Save IRS letters about stimulus, CTC

Along those lines, the IRS is sending letters this month to taxpayers who received the third federal stimulus check in 2021, as well as the advanced Child Tax Credit payments

These letters will inform each taxpayer what they received through these programs in 2021 — they are important documents to hold onto because you'll want to refer to those amounts when filling out your tax return. 

A major reason tax returns were delayed in 2021 was because taxpayers made mistakes in reporting their 2020 stimulus payment amounts on their returns, resulting in their tax filings getting flagged for manual review.

“Don't have any problems that are caused from your own negligence,” Everson advised.

The IRS will send two letters: 

  • Letter 6419 — informing taxpayers of their advance CTC payments. The agency began sending these letters in December and will continue to do so in January.
  • Letter 6475 — about the third stimulus check. That letter will be sent in late January.

Keep both of these letters and refer to them when you complete your tax return, tax experts said. 

You may face a delay if you claim these tax credits

There are a couple of issues that could cause delays, even if you do everything correctly. 

The IRS notes that it can't issue a refund that involves the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or the Child Tax Credit before mid-February. “The law provides this additional time to help the IRS stop fraudulent refunds from being issued,” the agency said this week.

That means if you file as soon as possible on January 24, you still might not receive a refund within the 21-day timeframe if your tax return involves either of those tax credits. 

The reason relates to a 2015 law that slows refunds for people who claim these credits, which was designed as a measure to combat fraudsters who rely on identity theft to grab taxpayer's refunds. 

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