Six Reasons You Might Have Gotten a Notice Instead of Your Refund

Every year, millions of Americans ask, “Where’s my refund?”

Many of them find an answer at But there are millions of others who expect a refund but instead get a notice – usually from the IRS – or a smaller-than-expected refund. If this happens to you, here are six possible reasons for this often unexpected change:

1. You or your spouse owe federal or state taxes.

This is one of the most common reasons the IRS lowers refunds. When you owe the IRS, the IRS has the right to take your refund to pay back taxes, penalties, and interest you owe. If your spouse owed taxes before you were married, the IRS can take your joint refund to pay for the past taxes.

If you owe the IRS or state, you’ll need to figure out:

  • How much you owe
  • Whether the IRS or state is correct about that amount
  • Whether you can do anything to lower it (or any penalties and interest)

If the IRS took your joint refund to pay for your spouse’s pre-marital tax debt, consider requesting your portion of the refund. This is called an injured spouse claim.

2. You or your spouse owe other types of debt.

The IRS is required by law to take your refund or part of your refund to pay for certain other debts, including:

  • Delinquent child support
  • Delinquent student loan debt
  • Back unemployment compensation that shouldn’t have been paid

If you owe a government agency other than the IRS or your state tax authority, you’ll need to work directly with that agency. If you didn’t get a notice explaining where your refund went, call the Bureau of Fiscal Services at (800) 304-3107.

You can also file an injured spouse claim to get your portion of a joint refund when it was taken to pay these other types of debt, if that debt belongs only to your spouse.

3. The IRS thinks you made an error on your return.

The IRS can make certain changes to your return if the IRS thinks there was an error. For example, the IRS could adjust your return if your or your dependent’s name and Social Security Number (SSN) don’t match IRS records.

Or, if your return has an inconsistency, the IRS may change your return and send you a notice. This could be something as simple as the IRS denying a child-related credit when the taxpayer who took it doesn’t have children.

When the IRS thinks you made an error, the IRS will send you a notice. Notices can be confusing, so if you don’t understand exactly why the IRS made a change to your return, call the IRS or look closer at your tax account. You can start with the phone number on the notice. You can also get a tax pro to help determine whether the IRS was correct, and help respond with the information the IRS needs to correct the error.

4. The IRS is verifying that you qualify for a credit or deduction.

The IRS can hold your refund and send you a notice asking for proof that you qualify for a credit or deduction you claimed on your return. This commonly happens with the Earned Income Credit (EIC), when two people (usually former spouses) both claim the same child as a dependent. Another common example is tax identity theft (see #5).

You should provide the IRS with the information it needs, as soon as possible. Learn more about how to handle refund holds and return adjustments like this. Or, you can get in touch with a tax pro for help.

5. You were a victim of tax identity theft.

The IRS may send you a notice to verify that a return filed using your SSN is legitimate.

  • If the return was yours, respond to the notice so that the IRS will process your return and issue your refund.
  • If the return wasn’t yours, respond to the IRS by verifying your identity and making sure the IRS processes the return that you filed (not the fraudulent one).

6. The IRS is looking into another one of your returns.

If the IRS has opened a delinquent return investigation or has started auditing a return you already filed, the IRS may freeze your refund until that process is complete.

If you owe taxes because of one of these issues, the IRS will put your refund toward the taxes. If you don’t owe any taxes, the IRS will release your refund after it completes the investigation or audit.

Learn how to handle an IRS audit or back tax returns.

Best course: Respond quickly

Other issues can come up, even after the IRS has processed your return and issued your refund. Always open IRS letters right away and respond by the due date to get the best outcome.

Or, get help from a tax pro, who can help you get to the bottom of any missing or reduced refunds, and deal with the IRS for you.

Learn about H&R Block’s Tax Audit & Notice Services. Or make an appointment for a free consultation with a local tax professional by calling 855-536-6504 or finding a local tax pro.

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