American taxpayers got an extra three months from the Internal Revenue Service to pay their taxes this year. But this act of bureaucratic largesse didn’t benefit many people who filed their returns long before the usual April 15 deadline. They are still awaiting refunds.

For the most part, the IRS stopped processing paper returns around March 30 because of the novel coronavirus. Some work was curtailed even earlier.

“Yes, some paper returns filed early in the season have not yet been processed,” said IRS spokesman Eric Smith. “We have been hearing this from a number of folks and very much understand that people are concerned. We are continuing to whittle away at our paper inventory.”

The coronavirus-related chaos that has marred this year’s tax season should give people who still mail paper tax returns additional incentive to switch to electronic filing.

One reader, waiting on a $10,000 refund, said his tax preparer doesn’t like e-filing returns.

“Big mistake,” he emailed. “Next time will hope my accountant of 40 years will do electronic filing or just retire. We filed a paper federal return on February 25. We are due a large refund. I got my Maryland state tax refund promptly (paper return) and can’t tell if my federal return got lost in the mail. Stupid me, I did not send it certified. Or is it still sitting in a trailer waiting to be reviewed? I’m not sure if the IRS ‘penalizes’ someone due a refund of several thousand dollars if the return just never got to them.”

The agency began a phased reopening on June 1, with employees working to dig out from under a backlog of mail. “Even now, we’re still not at 100 percent staffing,” Smith said.

As of the week ending July 4, the agency estimates that it had 7.8 million pieces of mail correspondence, which includes about 3.6 million unopened returns, Smith said.

“These are not exact figures, and because both paper and electronic returns continue to come in, it’s very much a moving target,” he said. “So, we don’t yet have an estimated date of when the backlog will be completed.”

The IRS remains scaled back to comply with social distancing recommendations. Still, in the week ending July 10, the agency processed more than 4 million returns compared to the previous week.

At least if you’re getting a refund, your return gets priority treatment — whether your return arrived early in the year or during the typical spike around the filing deadline, which shifted to July 15 this year.

There are four key points to keep in mind if you’re worried about when your return will be processed, or whether the IRS received it.

— Even without receipt proof, it’s very likely your return is in the backlog. But if you’re unsure, don’t file a second tax return or bother calling the IRS.

“We completely sympathize with your concern that the IRS may not have received your return, especially when it comes to refunds,” said Smith. “Right now, sending in a follow-up letter or another copy of the return won’t help, and in fact it will usually slow things down. It could take even longer to get your refund.”

As of July 10, the average refund was $2,762.

— Check the status of your refund by using the “Where’s My Refund?” tool at or by calling 800-829-1954. But you don’t have to check multiple times a day. The refund portal is only updated once a day, usually overnight.

You should call the IRS if it has been more than 21 days since you e-filed your return or you get a message while using the “Where’s My Refund?” tool to contact the IRS. Although phone lines supported by customer service representatives are open, expect long waits because of limited staffing.

— If you’re due a refund, you’ll get the full amount. There’s no penalty assessed by the IRS even if the return is late. There is only a late-filing penalty if you owe.

— There is a decent bonus for your wait. If you filed your tax return before July 15, you’ll receive interest on your refund. The interest rate for the second quarter, which ended June 30, is 5 percent, compounded daily. After this date, the interest rate for the third quarter, ending Sept. 30, drops to 3 percent.

The interest accrues from April 15 to whenever the IRS issues your refund, and it could come in a separate check or direct deposit.

And, in case you’re wondering, yes, the interest is considered taxable income.


Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook ( Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.