After you submit your tax return, your work is mostly done. For the IRS, however, the work is just beginning. It must verify the accuracy of the information you supplied, update their accounts, send out refunds and process payments, and if necessary conduct an audit to look more closely at your claims. Before electronic filing became widespread, the IRS also had to process your paper forms with their computer systems, a time-consuming step that took many weeks, but with electronic filing the processing goes much faster.
When the IRS accepts your return, that means that it has passed an initial review and contains no obvious showstopping errors that the computer system would detect automatically. This isn't the end of the review process. It only means your return hasn't been rejected. Next, the IRS checks your numbers and math to ensure that everything matches up. It verifies your claimed exemptions, deductions and credits to make sure that you claimed them correctly. It also looks for fraud and abuse. If it has reason to suspect your forms may be seriously inaccurate, it may initiate an audit.
Whether you have a refund coming or you owe money, after the IRS accepts your return it will credit or debit your bank account according to the payment terms you selected. For refunds, this usually means a direct deposit into a bank account you specify or a paper check. The direct deposit option is faster, and if your return has no significant problems, you can get your refund in just a few days this way. You can also visit the IRS website to check on the status of your refund. If you owe money, it usually means sending a paper check, agreeing to an electronic withdrawal from your checking or savings account or accepting a credit card charge. If you find that you can't pay the amount you owe before April 15, you will have to speak to the IRS to work out a payment plan.
Delays in Processing
Typically the IRS will meet its self-imposed 21-day deadline for processing your return and issuing any refund it owes you with time to spare. However, a number of problems or special considerations can slow down the process. The IRS lists some of the most common reasons for delays, which include errors or omissions on your tax forms, fraud or identity theft, unusual details that need further review, and the inclusion of Form 8379, "Injured Spouse Allocation," which the IRS notes can take up to 14 weeks to process.
As you go through the process, keep good copies of your records. This includes any tax forms you received, such as Forms W-2 or 1099; any confirmation documents you received, such as a confirmation of a payment you made; and, of course, a copy of your income tax return. If you keep paper records, it's also a good idea to have an electronic copy of your records because these are easier to keep over time, easier to move and, in some ways, harder to lose. Keep these documents for the long term because you may need them someday if you have a problem with your Social Security or Medicare benefits.
Josh Fredman is a freelance pen-for-hire and Web developer living in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington, studying engineering, and worked in logistics, health care and newspapers before deciding to go to work for himself.