I.R.S. Faces Backlog, Delaying Tax Refunds for Millions of Americans

Millions of tax returns are still awaiting processing by the Internal Revenue Service, which has faced a far bigger backlog than in years past.

That means any refunds due for those Americans have also been delayed. About 70 percent of the individual returns processed so far have been due refunds, with an average size of $2,827.

More than 35 million 2020 federal returns were waiting to be processed at the close of the filing season in mid-May — more than three times as many backlogged returns than at the end of last year’s filing season, according to a report released Wednesday from an independent advocacy group within the Internal Revenue Service.

“For taxpayers who can afford to wait, the best advice is to be patient and give the I.R.S. time to work through its processing backlog,” Erin M. Collins, the national taxpayer advocate, said in her midyear report to Congress. “But particularly for low-income taxpayers and small businesses operating on the margin, refund delays can impose significant financial hardships.”

The I.R.S. said in a statement that it had been processing returns continually for current and prior years, including amended returns filed by taxpayers. As of June 18, it had fully processed almost seven million individual tax returns since the end of tax season, and more than 15 million of the backlogged returns are in some stage of processing, the agency said.

The report — which also included recommendations for the I.R.S. and a series of objectives that the advocate plans to pursue in the upcoming year — said the backlog resulted largely from a pandemic-related evacuation order that restricted employee access to I.R.S. facilities. In 2019, before the pandemic started, the agency had a backlog of 7.4 million returns at the close of the filing season. Last year, that number swelled to 10.7 million.

The I.R.S. has not only had to perform its traditional duties, it has also had to digest tax legislation that was enacted in the 2021 filing season, the report said. Then, there was the third round of stimulus payments that the agency started sending in mid-March. Over the past 15 months, the agency has processed 475 million stimulus payments worth $807 billion.

The I.R.S. processed 136 million individual income tax returns by the end of the filing season, and issued 96 million refunds totaling about $270 billion. The 35.3 million returns that were still outstanding at the end of the filing season included individuals and businesses. The taxpayer advocate said those returns required some sort of manual assistance, meaning an employee needed to get involved before they could be pushed to the next stage of the processing pipeline.

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