Everyone has a responsibility to pay his or her taxes each and every year. There are severe penalties imposed by the IRS if you avoid or neglect a tax filing submission, and you don’t want to make life chaotic for yourself. The solution, then, is simple, and it furthermore requires you to stay on top of your finances and remain organized throughout the year.

What is a Tax Return?

This is the form you submit to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) each year. Typically, your tax return will show how much income you received over the past year, where that income came from, and how much of it was withheld for taxes. Your tax return will also include your various deductions and credits, which can lower your tax bill. The complexity of your tax return depends on your financial and domestic situation. You may need to provide more documentation or fill out additional forms if you have certain types of income or life events. According to the IRS, the 2019 deadline to file your tax return is April 15.

What is a Tax Refund?

You get a tax refund when you pay more taxes to your state government or the federal government – through payroll withholding, for example – than your actual tax liability. In this case, the government will cut you a check for the amount overpaid. The average 2019 tax refund, as of May 10, 2019, was nearly $3,000, according to the Internal Revenue Service. As of that date, about three-quarters of the 136 million returns processed had resulted in refund checks issued, according to the IRS.

A tax refund is money that the IRS sends to you after accepting and reviewing your tax return. It’s important to note, however, that not everyone who files a tax return will receive a tax refund. A tax refund usually results when your tax return shows that you paid more in taxes in the past year than you were required to.

The average 2019 tax refund, as of May 10, 2019, was nearly $3,000, according to the Internal Revenue Service. As of that date, about three-quarters of the 136 million returns processed had resulted in refund checks issued, according to the IRS.

Will I Get a Tax Refund?

That depends on your financial situation. Use a free tax estimator, such as TurboTax’s TaxCaster, to predict your tax liability. If you have a fairly straightforward tax situation, it should be simple to find out what your tax burden is going to be. A free tax estimator can help you know whether to prepare your finances for an influx of cash – or whether you’ll owe money on tax day.

Who Gets a Tax Refund?

Filers who overpaid their taxes during the year can expect to get a tax refund. You’ll need to file your tax return in order to receive the money owed to you by your state or the federal government.

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Don’t think of a refund as “free money” – it’s actually already yours. In fact, experts often describe the money in your refund as an interest-free loan to Uncle Sam. That money could be better spent growing in a retirement account, padding your emergency savings or funding another financial goal.

And if you’re getting huge refunds each year, consider tweaking your withholding on your W-4 employment form, making adjustments for life changes, such as new dependents or a change in marital status. Keep in mind that a new Form W-4 is slated for use in 2020 and will ask for more information than previous forms did. Withholding is typically a portion of your wages paid directly to the state or federal government.

Where Is My Tax Refund?

The IRS states that most tax refunds are delivered within 21 days of filing. Tax filers who want to know when their refund will arrive can track the status of their refund, which they can opt to have delivered via an electronic transfer or as a paper check, through the “Where’s My Refund?” tool at IRS.gov or by using the IRS2Go app. If it has been more than 21 days since you filed online or more than six weeks since you mailed a paper tax return, “Where’s My Refund?” directs tax filers to contact the IRS.

Keep in mind that the IRS may hold onto your refund if you have certain outstanding debts, such as child support or student loan bills, Perlman says. Paying those debts on time will ensure that you get your entire refund.

Going digital will also help hurry along your tax refund. You’ll get your refund faster if you use e-file and direct deposit, according to the IRS.

How Can I Get a Bigger Tax Refund?

Everyone likes to get as big of a tax refund as they can. “The key to a Bigger Tax Refund is to be more organized”. That means working harder, tracking receipts, tax documents and forms throughout the year. Those essential papers may include receipts for charitable contributions, student loan interest documentation, property tax forms and other tax documents relevant to your financial life. Whether you’re using a spreadsheet, a digital organizer or an old filing folder, keep tabs on the documents that can score you the largest refund.

Should I Use a Tax Preparer?

It may be worth visiting a tax preparer if your situation is complex – say you lived and worked in two states during the year or you just bought a home – or if it’s your first time filing taxes. This way, you can feel more confident that you’re claiming the appropriate credits and deductions. To ensure that you’re earning the largest refund possible, find a tax professional who really knows what she’s doing. Visit a certified public account, called a CPA, or an enrolled agent, which is a federally licensed tax practitioner who can represent taxpayers before the IRS. Double-check that the professionals you visit have these credentials since not every state requires certification.

Watch Out for High Filing Fees when you File Your Tax Return

If you file your taxes yourself, don’t let filing fees levied by companies such as TurboTax and H&R Block eat into your refund amount if you qualify to file your taxes for free. About 100 million people are eligible to file free taxes through the IRS-partnered Free File Alliance. Filers who earned an adjusted gross income of $66,000 or less in 2018 were eligible for this program.

This is important: Visit the Free File Alliance programs through its portal. It guarantees a truly free product, unlike the companies’ so-called free products offered outside the program, which critics say levy upcharges for all but the simplest tax returns or additional services.

According to the National Society of Accountants in January 2017, the average tax preparation fee for a tax professional to prepare a Form 1040 and state return with no itemized deductions is $176. If you itemize your deductions, that average fee goes up to $273.

Is Your Tax Refund Lower Than You Expected?

If you owe money to a federal or state agency, the federal government may use part or all of your federal tax refund to repay the debt.  

Here’s how the Treasury Offset Program (TOP) works:

  1. The Bureau of Fiscal Services (BFS) will check if your name and taxpayer information are in its delinquent debtor database.
  2. If there is a match, BFS will notify you that it is deducting the amount you owe from the payment you were going to receive.
  3. BFS will send the outstanding amount to the federal or state government agency to which you owed the money.

If you owe more money than the payment you were going to receive, then BFS will send the entire amount to the other government agency. If you owe less, BFS will send the agency the amount you owed, and then send you the remaining balance.

Here’s an example: you were going to receive a $1,500 federal tax refund. But you are delinquent on a student loan and have $1,000 outstanding. BFS will deduct $1,000 from your tax refund and send it to the correct government agency. It will also send you a notice of its action, along with the remaining $500 that was due to you as a tax refund.

If you believe that a deduction was an error, contact the agency that said you owed money. Call the Treasury Offset Program Call Center at 1-800-304-3107 if you need help locating the agency you need to contact.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) can help you understand more about tax refund offsets.

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