Trail to Tax Refunds Starts With Phone Call

If you haven’t received your tax refund yet and are worried that it may be overdue or lost, tracking it down can be as easy as a phone call.

Refund snafus are fairly common, with thousands of lost or delayed cases in Southern California each year, the Internal Revenue Service reports.

Delays can stem from any of several reasons: taxpayer math errors, failure to sign returns, illegible return addresses, incorrect Social Security numbers, failure to attach proper tax schedules or including them in the wrong order when filing or failure to attach W-2s or other forms.


Lost refunds often result from taxpayers moving and not leaving forwarding addresses, Postal Service problems or theft.

Even IRS officials get socked with delays. Shirley Nakagawa, public affairs specialist in the agency’s Los Angeles office, says her refund was delayed two weeks last year because she reported an incorrect number on her return.

There are several steps you can take to investigate the status of your refund.

If it involves your federal return and at least 10 weeks have passed since you filed, call the IRS’ automated refund information system. In the 213 area code, the number is 617-3177. Otherwise it is 800-554-4477. (Note: This service may not be able to help you if you’ve waited less than 10 weeks after you filed your return--the maximum time often needed for your refund to be processed and the information to work its way into the computer.)

If you have a push-button phone, a computer will ask you to enter your filing status, first Social Security number on your return and size of the refund you expect. If you have a rotary phone, you will need to be assisted by an IRS staff member.

Hours for the service locally are 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays for those with push-button phones and 7:30 to 4:30 weekdays (regular IRS office hours) for those with rotary phones.

The computer or staff member will tell you if your refund has been processed and when it will be mailed.

However, if 10 weeks have passed and your refund has been delayed due to a discrepancy, missing documents or other problem, the system will tell you to call the IRS tax information number at 800-424-1040. An IRS staff member will investigate the reason for the delay.

If that doesn’t solve your problem, you may need to write to the IRS service center where your return was sent. (For Southern Californians, that address is IRS Service Center, Fresno, Calif. 93888.) Be sure to state your name, address, Social Security number and year for which the refund was due, and keep a copy of the letter in your files.

The service center should send you a response within six weeks, IRS spokeswoman Nakagawa says.

If not, or if you aren’t satisfied with the response, call the 800-424-1040 number again, but this time ask for the IRS problem resolution office. Its staff has direct access to the Fresno service center and will try to save you the hassles of going back and forth by mail with the center.

“If you have problems in getting your matter resolved, we want to know about it,” Nakagawa says.

David L. Keating, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, a taxpayer advocate organization in Washington, says the system generally works well. “I don’t hear too many complaints about refunds. Eventually they seem to get it straightened out,” he says.

For problems with refunds on California state returns, you have two options. One is to call the Franchise Tax Board’s new automated refund information line at 800-338-0505. It operates much like the IRS computerized line. If you have a touch-tone phone, you will enter various data, including your Social Security number, filing status and the exact amount of the refund you are seeking.

The other option is to call the state’s regular tax help line at 800-852-5711. That way you will get a live person to check on your refund.

Either way, the state recommends that you allow it six to eight weeks to process your return before you inquire. Most refunds are processed within four weeks, says Jim Reber of the Franchise Tax Board.

How to avoid lost or delayed refunds in the future?

One way is to have the refund applied to your taxes for the following year, suggests Michael Savage, editor of Taxes Interpreted, a New York newsletter. You can either apply it to your estimated tax payments or adjust your withholding to account for how much the refund will reduce your future tax liability.

Better yet, adjust your withholding to minimize refunds in the future.

Many taxpayers intentionally plan to get big refunds as a way of forced savings, but “this is the worst way to save money,” says Keating of the National Taxpayers Union. It is like providing an interest-free loan to Uncle Sam. A much better way to save on a regular basis is to enroll in a payroll savings plan with your employer, he says.