Ready to file your tax return? The IRS isn’t ready for it. And that means anyone counting on their federal tax refund to help pay their bills will have to wait a few weeks longer.

The IRS has delayed the start of the tax filing season until February 12. Normally, it starts accepting and processing tax returns in late January. The agency says it needs more time to reprogram and test its computers based on the COVID Relief Act, which wasn’t signed into law until December 27.

This means an even longer wait for the millions of Americans who did not get their stimulus relief money yet, and were told to claim the Recovery Rebate Credit on their tax returns.

Note: Advance stimulus payments already received are not taxable, and they do not reduce your refund when you file in 2021.

“This start date will ensure that people get their needed tax refunds quickly while also making sure they receive any remaining stimulus payments they are eligible for as quickly as possible,” the IRS commissioner, Charles Rettig, said in a statement.

This is the fifth time since 2007 that the IRS has delayed the start of tax season until February due to tax law changes made by Congress at the end of the year.

This year’s late start will also affect low-income taxpayers who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit. By law, the IRS cannot issue refunds for these tax credits until mid-February, to give it time to check for fraudulent claims. The IRS plans to start sending out the EITC and ACTC refunds the first week of March.

This year, more than ever, it’s best to file your tax return electronically and use direct deposit for any refund. Simply put: Mailing paperwork in and getting a check mailed out is going to slow things down even more.

If you use a tax software company to file your return, you can file ahead of time, and your return will be automatically transmitted to the IRS starting February 12. To check the status of your refund, use the Where’s My Refund tool on the IRS website.

Despite the late start, the tax filing deadline has not changed; it’s still April 15.

Maybe You Can File for Free

You may qualify to do your return for free using the IRS Free File program, a partnership between the IRS and nine major tax software companies that provide their popular products for free to qualifying taxpayers—those with an adjusted gross income (or AGI) of $72,000 or less. You get free online preparation and filing of your federal return. There may be a fee for state returns.

The IRS Free File online look-up tool can help you quickly sort through the nine Free File offers to find the ones that best meet your needs.

Tip: It’s best to use the Free File portal on the IRS website to compare Free File options. This is much safer than searching online for something like “file my taxes for free.” Companies taking part in the Free File program must follow these rules:

  • Fees to file your federal return are prohibited: No participant in the Free File program will charge you anything to file your federal tax return. You will not be asked to buy any products or services (for example, promotional rebates) in exchange for having your federal tax return prepared by the Free File program participant.
  • Bank products with fees are not a part of Free File: Companies offering this service cannot offer you bank products that often carry product fees, such as refund anticipation loans.
  • Free File companies guarantee the accuracy of their calculations: You can pursue any accuracy concerns directly with the company that prepared your return.
  • Help is available if you need it: If you need help when you’re doing your taxes on a company’s IRS Free File site, you may refer to the company’s free customer service options.

 




Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.