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Seven Reasons the IRS May Keep Your Refund (and What to Do About It)

Written by Eva Rosenberg on September 9, 2013 in Tax  |   12 comments

I’ve seen thousands of cases where the IRS grabs tax refunds from taxpayers. In most cases, there is one cause for this irritating IRS practice: The taxpayer didn’t respond to the IRS’s letters. It’s as simple as that. When you have a balance or a…

tax, tax mistakes I’ve seen thousands of cases where the IRS grabs tax refunds from taxpayers. In most cases, there is one cause for this irritating IRS practice: The taxpayer didn’t respond to the IRS’s letters.

It’s as simple as that.

When you have a balance or a new assessment due, the IRS sends out a notice that gives you two ways to respond—by telephone or by mail.

To avoid the IRS keeping your refunds, all you need to do is respond and find out why there is an assessment. Sometimes the IRS made a mistake with your taxes and you owe nothing—by simply responding, you can make the new assessment go away. Or, you can correct whatever error caused the issue and resolve the problem that way.

When you actually owe the assessment

Sometimes, though, you may contact the IRS only to find that you do owe money. In these cases, things may get more complicated, and you may need to get a tax professional involved. Contact an enrolled agent, CPA, or tax attorney to help you identify the problem and solve it.

You may be facing an IRS balance for one of the following seven reasons:

  1. You owed money when you filed your tax return and didn’t pay it.
  2. You did not file a tax return. The IRS filed a substitute for return (made an educated guess about how much you might owe in taxes) and assessed a balance due.
  3. You ignored a notice, and the IRS went ahead and assessed a tax.
  4. You were audited, and the audit generated a balance due that you haven’t paid yet.
  5. Your spouse (or ex) generated a balance due that you cannot afford to pay, and you don’t really feel that you owe it.
  6. You were a victim of identity theft. Someone else stole your refund or withholding and the IRS won’t credit you for taxes you already paid.
  7. You owe other debts. The IRS is a collection agency for the Social Security Administration, state child support agencies, and federal student loans, among other things.

What you can do to get your refund

At this point, it’s too late for preventative steps—you already owe money. So, what is the cure? How can you get your tax refund?

Let’s look at solutions by the numbers above.

1 and 4: Call the IRS and set up a payment plan, called an installment agreement. Schedule the payments to come directly from your bank account. The IRS will stop grabbing your refunds or your paycheck.

If you can’t afford to pay the bill, see if you qualify for an offer in compromise. Not everyone does, so don’t pay thousands of dollars to a company that says it can help you get one. It will likely just make things worse.

2: File a tax return for the year in question. You might still owe money, but it will be a lot less than the balance the IRS made up on your behalf.

3: Go back and dig out the notice or source of the assessment. You still have time to fix the problem if the IRS was wrong, but you’ll probably need a tax pro.

5: If you believe you should not be held liable for the taxes of your spouse or former spouse, you may have an innocent spouse case. Pursue it.

6: Identity theft is one of the biggest problems the IRS is facing this year. It has an area of its website devoted to helping you. Use this resource, immediately, to figure out your next steps.

7: When it comes to other debts, the IRS is powerless to help you. You must resolve the balances due directly with the agency.

While you may owe money to the IRS, ignoring its notices won’t make the problem go away. It will only delay the solution.


Eva Rosenberg, EA is the publisher of TaxMama.com, where your tax questions are answered. She is the author of several books and ebooks, including Small Business Taxes Made Easy. Eva teaches a tax pro course at IRSExams.com and tax courses you might enjoy at http://www.cpelink.com/teamtaxmama.

The information contained in this blog post is designed to generally educate and inform visitors to the Equifax Finance Blog. The blog posts do not give, and should not be assumed to provide, personalized tax, investment, real estate, legal, retirement, credit, personal financial, or other professional advice. Before making any financial decision, you should always consult with the appropriate professionals who can explain your options, rights, and legal responsibilities, and advise you on any tax, legal, credit, or business implications that may result from those decisions. The views and opinions expressed by the authors of blog posts are their own views and may not be the views or opinions of Equifax, Inc. and/or its affiliates.


  1. Thomas-Avery Blair, EA says:

    There is another reason that I have run into in recent years: IRS sends notices to a former address of the taxpayer (or spouse) after a divorce, or a new marriage or simply a move to a new residence but taxpayer never notifies the IRS of such a change of address.

    Another matter like the one above relates to Identity Theft where someone uses your name and social security number for a credit card, lease, etc., and uses your old address, knowing that the USPS drops 1st class mail forwarding usually after just 6 months’ time, and also that the USPS does not forward any mail that is mailed as anything other than first class mail (this includes the regular mail sent by the IRS…which means you don’t learn of an Identity theft matter UNTIL the IRS finally stops paying tax refunds)!

    I have two cases at this time over 1099-C cancellation of debt on debt obtained through identity theft but charged to the taxpayer in any case…another matter relating to why taxpayers don’t receive their tax refunds.

    Viva to TaxMama…if she ran for President of the USA I would definitely vote for her! 🙂

  2. Brandy L. says:

    I proved identity theft to irs they sent a letter saying I would get my check in 60 days I still haven’t gotten it I called today and they want copies of the things I already sent them what do I do now

  3. Brandy L. says:

    Whatcom I do to get my refund

  4. CB says:

    Here is a good one folks – They are holding my refunds just incase I have future taxes due. I’m pretty sure they can’t do this. All taxes are current and have been paid. I’m thinking of hiring a tax attorney.

    FYI: Beware if you are thinking of going on a payment plan. The penalty fees are stiff and you are better finding a credit card with lower interest rates and paying it that way.

  5. Anonymous says:

    well I have been divorce for 3 yars and they keep taking allmy refunds because in 2011 my husbin at the time owed 11,000 fo his prior business they never took his only all mine help its not fair why doesn’t he have too pay it should be equal if nothing

  6. gry says:

    I have to pay 22,000 Dollars WOW it really hard

  7. Eddie W. says:

    I believe Iam being penalized , for my spouse student loan tax debt. I filed my 2015 taxes Married Filing Single / Separate.


  8. Marquis says:

    I don’t get this! EVERY year since I started working they have been taking my IRS refund.
    I was declared disabled due to spinal and nerve paralysis. I received a total of ONE year of benefits from SSI, BARELY surviving with med costs, transportation costs while trying to rehab. I was NEVER going ANYWHERE, stuck in the house, lost my girlfriend, so depession set in HARD! I told my doctor that I had to get functional so I can get a job so I can live a decent life instead of waiting for a check that I had to INSTANTLY give away! He put me in a rigorous rehab program and I was back on my feet walking within a year! God heals! So, I started looking for work right out the gate still not FULLY feeling the bottom of my feet, I got in the groove becoming a mad man for work since I was sitting for so long, I got two jobs, loving th sensation of putting the time in and reaping the benefit. Ok, enter 2005 tax time, after rehabbing paralysis since 2002. Notice: your refund has been aplplied to a tax debt. It seems that you were OVERPAID during your time while receiving benefits. When I received my reward letter the said I qualified for a WHOPPING $500 per month, and that’s what I was paid throughout receiving the benefit. Now, I see that it’s funny that you were giving me $6,000 a year for about a year and a half, then I beat my body up to get off my ass and get in the work force and then I started earning about $20,000 a year, now I owe you money? It’s 2016 now, now making $50,000 a year and NEVER receiving a tax refund, EVERY year I get a notice regarding a past tax debt , what debt? I would get $300 dollar notice pay it, they take a $4,000 return, send letters, go to office, can’t get answers….WHAT? This morning, checked my refund status AGAIN, 10 STRAIGHT YEARS- your refund has been applied to a past tax debt. IM FUMING cause it feels like I’m being punished for getting better and working-it feels like I’m being robbed EVERY YEAR, by my calculations the IRS has taken roughly $25,000 worth of tax refunds away from me over a 10 year period- if I stop filing returns for them to take the will fine me right? WHAT CAN I DO?

  9. belinda b. says:

    i have identity fraud here in new jersey i file my 2015 taxes and my back taxes 86 87 88 89 90 plus 91 92 93 i been waiting for answer i got mail fraud too ppl address i use love keeping my good mail i dont want to do i know the irs in austin texas sent me letter that i can get 11,534.22 back for year 91 92 93 but nj nothing but 30dollars in bankof amemica any tips let me know.

  10. Sarah says:

    I have been waiting for 4 months for our taxes They at first said I might owe taxes Then I got a letter saying that I owe taxes on a previous year. We agreed we made a mistake and we owed the taxes. We asked them to just take the taxes that are owed out of the taxes owed to us We sent in all paperwork regarding this. Now we have a code on our where’s my refund site saying that they are withholding our refund for part or full
    Of our taxes owed. We don’t owe as much as they say they are keeping They also said we would get a letter regarding how it was paid. Shouldn’t we get our remainder refunded to us??? This doesn’t seem fair we only owed 1466. And our refund was for 4703 Can anyone help me understand ? Thank you

  11. Kim says:

    Our taxes for 2014 were filed a year late. (My husband refused to get them completed.) Before we finally filed, we received a bill from the IRS stating what they thought our tax payment should be. When we did file, we were supposed to get a refund of $5000. Our lawyer filed both electronically and paper. Then he told us to go ahead and pay what the bill from the IRS because it might make things go more quickly. It has been 4 months and we are still getting letters asking why we disagree with the IRS and asking us to sign forms that say we agree with them. Is there something else that our lawyer or we should be doing?

  12. Adry says:

    if you feel that you are taken advantage of and you are not getting anywhere consider contacting The Taxpayer Advocate Service in your state.

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