Average tax refunds higher than last year but paper headaches remain

Susan Tompor
Detroit Free Press

If you're among millions of early tax filers, it's quite possible that you're no longer asking "Where's my refund?" It's in your pocket — or bank account. 

But if you've yet to file — and you do have until April 18 — here's one surefire tip for getting a speedy refund. 

Paper is not your pal. Skip the idea, if you can, of printing out your 1040 return and putting it in the mail. While most returns are electronically filed, sending in a paper return remains an option and some filers in specific situations need to do so. 

If you're filing your tax return by paper, though, it's a safe bet to say you could be waiting months to get that refund, as the Internal Revenue Service continues to deal with a paper backlog from last tax season.

Paper is the new 'kryptonite'

"Paper is the IRS's kryptonite, and the agency is still buried in it," wrote National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins in her 2021 report to Congress.

Collins, who is the voice of the taxpayer and leads an independent organization within the IRS, has noted that processing paper returns remains the agency’s biggest challenge, and that will continue throughout 2022.

On Friday, the IRS said it is opening mail within normal time frames but still has 2020 returns in its backlog. 

"All paper and electronic individual refund returns received prior to April 2021 have been processed if the return had no errors or did not require further review," the IRS said.

If your 2021 tax return has no issues, the IRS said most people can expect to receive a refund within 21 days of when they file electronically if they choose direct deposit. 
The average tax refund last year was more than $2,800.

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"As of March 18, 2022, we had 7 million unprocessed individual returns," the IRS said.

That includes, according to the IRS, tax year 2021 and prior returns with errors and returns requiring special handling such as those where corrections must be made relating to refundable credits.

Wait, how long do you have to wait? 

Collins, who spoke to the Free Press by phone Friday, said the IRS procedures call for processing last year’s paper returns first before it will get to paper returns filed this year.

If one is being optimistic, she said, it might take four months to receive a refund if you file a 2021 paper return, instead of e-filing, this year. Yet, she cautioned that realistically it could take six months to nine months for a refund, if you file by paper. 

Yes, that's what she said — maybe nine months. 

Much, she said, will depend on how quickly the IRS is able to move through its backlog. 

Someone who needs the tax refund money more quickly, she said, must take into account the extended delay that is expected with paper returns.

The IRS reported Friday that nearly 51.8 million people already have received tax refunds so far this year through March 18. That's up 4.1%. 

If you're filing your tax return by paper, though, it's a safe bet to say you could be waiting months to get that refund, as the Internal Revenue Service continues to deal with a paper backlog from last tax season.

What's the average refund so far? 

The average refund was $3,305 so far — up 12.9% from the same time a year ago. Already, $171 billion in refund cash is out there since the tax filing season kicked off Jan. 24.

With a month to go, the IRS said the agency has received about half of the returns it would expect to receive by the filing deadline. The IRS received 72 million returns through March 18, down 5.1% from the same time a year ago. 

The IRS has processed 70.3 million returns through March 18, up 3.8% from a year ago.

Some numbers can be difficult to compare directly with last year. Last filing season, for example, the IRS did not begin processing returns until Feb. 12, 2021. This year's tax season kicked off a few weeks earlier on Jan. 24. And the filing deadline in 2022 is April 18. But the filing deadline was extended last year May 17, 2021.

The IRS has not broken down how many or what percentage of refunds issued now are connected to tax returns received in the prior year but processed in 2022. 

Many tax professionals say refunds for 2021 returns filed this year seem to be going along at a fairly decent clip. Even so, glitches could appear along the way for many individuals. 

And the IRS has suggested that taxpayers file electronically and request a direct deposit of their refund into a bank account to speed up their refund.

The IRS estimated that roughly 8.2% of returns will be filed by paper this year — or nearly 13.2 million returns. Nearly 160.8 million returns will be filed in all of 2022. 

For the week ending March 18, the IRS said 96.72% of tax returns were e-filed. 

In many cases, the IRS is able to issue tax refunds within 21 days or less for e-filed returns. 

The IRS has warned that it will take more than 21 days to issue a refund when a return is electronically filed but requires special handling by the IRS. That's true if a correction must be made relating to any recovery rebate credit, child tax credit, earned income credit or additional child tax credit. In many cases, the IRS said, those situations can take 90 days to 120 days to resolve. 

Taxpayers can go to to check "Where's My Refund?" for updates. See 

ContactSusan Tompor: Follow her on Twitter@tompor. To subscribe, please go to Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.