As we get closer to tax-filing season, millions of Americans are looking forward to getting their tax refunds. But even as some tax-preparation companies have published 2014 tax refund schedules promising your money at certain times, the sad fact is that the IRS has gone to great lengths to tell taxpayers not to anticipate getting their refunds by any particular date. As a result, counting on a published 2014 tax refund schedule could lead you to make some bad financial decisions.
Why you shouldn't count on a 2014 tax refund schedule
Many tax-preparation companies have already released what look like official 2014 tax refund schedules. They generally include a weekly range during which the IRS accepts your return and then project that the IRS will send a direct-deposit refund by the following Wednesday or mail a paper-refund check by the following Friday. For instance, according to a commonly circulated schedule, someone who has his or her return accepted April 15 would theoretically have a direct-deposit refund sent on April 23, or a paper-refund check mailed on April 25.
The problem, though, is that all of these schedules involve guesswork. The IRS doesn't give firm processing dates for refunds, urging taxpayers, "Don't count on getting your refund by a certain date to make major purchases or pay other financial obligations." The only thing the IRS will say is that in previous years it got more than 90% of refunds to taxpayers within 21 days and that it expects the same this year. Moreover, taxpayers should heed this warning: "Even though the IRS issues most refunds in less than 21 days, it's possible your tax return may require additional review and take longer."
Moreover, having a return received isn't the same as having it "accepted" or "approved." As Intuit (NASDAQ: INTU ) tells its TurboTax users, returns that are filed electronically get sent to the IRS, but Intuit has to wait 24 to 48 hours for the IRS to do some internal checks to make sure the basic personal information on the return is consistent with what it has in its own records. If that initial return doesn't get accepted, it can delay your refund. Paper returns can involve even longer delays, as they require additional handling and processing that can complicate the process.
Similarly, H&R Block (NYSE: HRB ) tells taxpayers to watch out for factors the IRS has said can delay your return. For example, botched Social Security numbers, failure to sign your return, and unusual tax situations that result in larger-than-average refunds can flag your return for further processing, delaying your refund.
Don't get tricked
The IRS is acutely aware of the potential problems in promising an overly ambitious 2014 tax refund schedule. In its reminder to the tax-preparation community, the IRS notes that "providers must not use improper or misleading advertising in relation to IRS e-file, including the time frames for refunds." That's why most of the schedules you'll see have notes that emphasize that they are only estimates rather than official proclamations from the IRS.
Your smartest move is not to rely on any sort of 2014 tax-refund schedule in planning how to spend your refund. Using e-filing and direct deposit will make your refund come as quickly as possible, even if it doesn't adhere to the schedule you would prefer.
Be smart about your taxes
Getting your refund as quickly as possible is just one way you can make your tax season go more smoothly in 2014. In our brand-new special report "How You Can Fight Back Against Higher Taxes," The Motley Fool's tax experts run through what to watch out for in doing your tax planning this year. With its concrete advice on how to cut taxes for decades to come, you won't want to miss out. Click here to get your copy today -- it's absolutely free.