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Can You Check for Unclaimed Tax Refunds?

Updated for Tax Year 2020


OVERVIEW

The IRS puts a limit on the time in which you can claim a refund for the over-payment of tax. However, you can't check if you have a refund due to you until you complete a tax return. To amend a prior year return to claim any overpaid taxes, you have three years from the date you filed it. If you didn't file a tax return, then you have two years to submit one in order to claim a refund that you are owed.


The federal tax filing deadline for individuals has been extended to May 17, 2021. Quarterly estimated tax payments are still due on April 15, 2021. For additional questions and the latest information on the tax deadline change, visit our “IRS Announced Federal Tax Filing and Payment Deadline Extension” blog post.

For information on the third coronavirus relief package, please visit our “American Rescue Plan: What Does it Mean for You and a Third Stimulus Check” blog post.


 

Smiling woman discovering her unclaimed tax refund on her tablet.

Can I claim tax refunds on unfiled returns?

Filing a complete tax return is the only way to make a valid refund claim. If the refund relates to a tax year when you don’t file a return, you have to file an original tax return within two years of paying the tax. The IRS starts the two-year period on the filing deadline that immediately follows the relevant tax year.

For example, if your employer withheld federal income tax from your wages during calendar year 2020, the IRS:

  • Considers the tax paid on May 17, 2021.
  • Would have allowed you to file a valid refund claim until May 17, 2023.

However, the IRS won’t issue a full refund if it exceeds the total amount of tax you paid in the two years immediately preceding the date you claim the refund.

How long do I have to claim refunds on amended returns?

The three-year period applies to taxpayers who file the original tax return on time but later discover an error that should have given them a lower tax liability for that year. To initiate a refund claim, you have to file an amended tax return.

  • The three-year period begins on filing deadline in the year immediately following the close of the relevant tax year.
  • This includes any extension of time to file the IRS grants you.

To illustrate, if for the 2020 tax year you:

  • filed an automatic six-month extension and
  • filed the original return on Oct. 15, 2021,
  • you would have had to file the amended return by Oct. 15, 2024 to obtain a fund.

What if I miss the window for a tax refund because of a disability?

The IRS can suspend the limitation period during times when a physical or mental impairment renders you incapable of managing your personal financial affairs.

To qualify, the impairment:

  • has to last or be expected to last for at least 12 consecutive months, or
  • potentially result in death.

You have to provide the IRS with a written statement from your physician attesting to the seriousness of the impairment. The IRS will extend the standard limitation period by the amount of time you suffer from the impairment.

Can I still file a tax refund if the IRS extends their assessment period past the due date?

The standard time limitation on claiming a tax refund does not apply if the IRS extends the assessment period for the relevant tax year. Generally, the IRS has three years from the time you actually file the tax return to examine it and assess additional taxes.

In some cases, the IRS may ask the taxpayer to sign an agreement extending this period. When that happens, you receive an additional six months in which you may file a valid refund claim for the relevant tax year. The six-month extension begins on the date the extended assessment period expires regardless of whether you agree to a one-year or 20-year extension.

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