I.R.S. Pushes Back Start of 2020 Tax Filing Season

The start of tax filing season is postponed by a couple of weeks this year, but the government says it expects to pay most refunds reasonably quickly.

Typically, the Internal Revenue Service begins accepting and processing individual income tax returns in late January. But the agency has pushed back the start of filing to Feb. 12 for returns for the tax year 2020.

The shift was needed, the I.R.S. said, to allow the agency to update and test its systems to reflect late-year tax changes approved by Congress, including a second round of economic stimulus payments.

“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 I.R.S. commissioner, Charles P. Rettig, said in prepared remarks.

This is shaping up to be another challenging tax season for the I.R.S., which has struggled in recent years with reduced budgets that have forced it to make do with fewer workers and outdated computer systems. During the pandemic, it has also had the extra work of distributing stimulus checks.

Even as it prepares to accept 2020 tax returns, the agency is still wading through a backlog of 2019 tax returns.

Because of the coronavirus, the I.R.S. was delayed in processing some returns, particularly those filed on paper, according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service, the arm of the I.R.S. that speaks for filers. Though most people file returns electronically, about 16 million paper returns were filed last year. As of Dec. 25, there were still nearly seven million unprocessed individual returns from tax year 2019, according to the I.R.S. website.

Even so, the I.R.S. said, most taxpayers due a refund for the 2020 tax year will get it within three weeks if they file electronically and have the money deposited directly into their bank account. The average refund in recent years has been more than $2,500. Many families use refunds to pay bills or use it as a kind of forced savings plan.

The change in the start of filing season raised concerns about recipients of antipoverty tax credits, like the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit, who typically have lower incomes and file early to get refunds quickly. But people claiming the credit can expect to receive their refunds beginning in early March, which is typical, as long as there are no issues with their tax returns, the I.R.S. said.

“This would be the same experience for taxpayers if the filing season opened in late January,” the agency said. By law, the agency cannot issue refunds to people claiming the credit until after mid-February, as part of anti-fraud efforts.

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The I.R.S. said taxpayers seeking prompt refunds should file their returns electronically. “Avoid filing paper returns wherever possible,” the agency said.

Certain tax forms and attachments can’t be filed electronically, said Erin M. Collins, the national taxpayer advocate, but most can.

Although the I.R.S. won’t start accepting and processing returns until Feb. 12, you can prepare your return before that if you have all the necessary documents. Then it will be ready to submit when filing season opens.

“Don’t delay,” said Dina Pyron, global leader of EY Tax Chat, a mobile tax preparation app.

The I.R.S. Free File program is ready to use now, if you are comfortable preparing your own tax return. Free File, a partnership between the I.R.S. and tax software companies, is available to people with adjusted gross income of $72,000 or less. The program offers free online preparation and filing of federal returns, but some providers charge fees for state returns. You can complete your return now, and it will be transmitted to the I.R.S. starting Feb. 12.

Commercial tax preparers can also prepare returns and file them in February. Fees vary based on the complexity of your return. To find a reputable preparer, you can search on IRS.gov.

If you need more guidance but are on a budget, you can seek free help preparing and filing your returns from two I.R.S.-supported, community-based volunteer tax preparation programs. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, helps people with incomes under $57,000. AARP Foundation Tax Aide helps filers of all ages, with an emphasis on people 50 and older or those with low and moderate incomes. The programs typically open before filing season and may require appointments. Last year, locations had to close because of the virus, but this year many sites expect to offer help by phone or mobile app.

Here are some questions and answers about this year’s tax filing season:

Are the federal stimulus payments taxable?

No. The economic stimulus payments issued during the pandemic are not taxed, and they won’t reduce your refund.

What if I’m eligible for stimulus payments but didn’t receive any?

Most people received the payments automatically. But if you didn’t, or if you got a partial payment, you can still get it if you’re eligible by claiming a recovery rebate credit on your 2020 tax return, the I.R.S. said.

When is the tax filing deadline this year?

The federal filing deadline this year is April 15. (The date may be later in some states.) Last year, because of disruptions caused by the pandemic, the filing deadline was delayed by three months, but this year it’s currently scheduled for the traditional mid-April date.

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