Tax return deadline 2021: How to estimate returns, check refund status, claim stimulus money and more

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Tax season is already upon us. The IRS will begin accepting 2020 income tax returns on Feb. 12, and the deadline to file will revert to the traditional date, April 15. (Last year, the IRS extended the deadline to July 15 due to the coronavirus pandemic.) For many, preparing a tax return this year will be more complicated than usual, given the host of new and potentially thorny issues that arose in 2020 including unemployment insurance claimsstimulus check income and pandemic-driven changes in residence

If that wasn’t enough, the political environment remains highly dynamic, with an incoming US administration that’s likely to have a dramatically different orientation to tax matters than the previous one. And scammers are sure to take advantage of the situation, trotting out classic tax scams in addition to new ones cooked up specifically for this strange time. As such, we’ve assembled answers to some of the most common tax questions to help you navigate your taxes this year. Read on for the details. 

Read more: How to estimate your tax refund: Tips, calculators and more

When is my 2020 tax return due in 2021? 

Though the IRS extended last year’s deadline from April 15 to July 15, your 2020 tax return is due on April 15, 2021. Though the agency won’t begin accepting tax returns until Feb. 12, you can start preparing your taxes now with one of the best tax software companies. And if you request an extension, the tax deadline will come on Oct. 15, 2021.

Those dates could change again this year. The IRS sticking with an April deadline likely depends on the progression of new COVID-19 variants and the rate of vaccination, according to Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. 

“Another shutdown of facilities, forced by the pandemic, could lead to a delay in the filing deadline and a delay in refunds,” Holzblatt said. “For all our sakes, let’s bet on good health — and people filing early and electronically.”

What happens if I miss the tax deadline?

If you fail to file your income taxes by midnight on April 15, what happens next depends on your situation. If you are owed a refund, there is no penalty for filing late (though this may be different for your state taxes). But if you owe the IRS, penalties and interest will start to accrue on any remaining unpaid tax due in April. There’s also a $330 failure-to-file penalty under the Taxpayer First Act of 2019. 

It’s best to file on time, even if you owe money that you can’t pay right now — in most cases, late filing penalties are higher than late tax payment penalties. If you can’t file on time, you can file for an extension, which automatically pushes back the tax filing deadline to Oct. 15 and protects you from penalties. In most states, taxpayers who are granted a federal extension to file automatically receive an equivalent extension to file their state income tax return. 

An important note: If you are owed a refund or if you file for an extension through Oct. 15, you still have to pay your taxes by April 15. If you owe money, you’re required to estimate the amount due and pay it with your Form 4868. If you do that, you’ll automatically be granted an extension. 

Another caveat: If you are in a federally declared disaster or serving in the military — in a combat zone or a contingency operation in support of the Armed Forces — you may be granted additional time to file, according to the IRS. 

Bottom line? It’s best to e-file or postmark your individual tax return as early as possible, and certainly by the April 15 deadline. CNET’s roundup of the best tax software for 2021 features an array of packages that can help you take care of business quickly and affordably.

What changes for 2020 taxes do I need to know about?

For tax year 2020, the IRS has changed individual income tax brackets, adjusting them for inflation. There are also new temporary regulations created by last year’s CARES Act around charitable deductions, IRA and 401(k) plans and student loans that may affect how you prepare your taxes. The major changes include: 

  • The standard deduction is now $12,400 for single filers and $24,800 for married couples filing jointly. (Learn more.) 
  • You can deduct up to $300 in donations to qualifying charities this year — even if you don’t itemize your deduction. (Learn more.) 
  • Employer contributions toward an employee’s student loan of up to $5,250 per year are tax-free for both the employer and the employee, so long as they were made March 27, 2002 through Dec. 31, 2020. (Learn more.)
  • Required minimum distributions (RMDs) for IRAs and retirement plans were waived for 2020. Since those RMDs count as taxable income, if you didn’t take the distribution, it’s like getting a tax break. (Learn more.)
  • Changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit: Normally, these tax credit amounts are based on earned income, granting more money to lower-income people. But the December coronavirus relief package allows filers to use their 2019 earnings instead of 2020 to determine their eligibility, raising the total amount of refundable credits provided to lower-income earners. You can compare your income from both tax years to determine which is best for you, according to the Tax Foundation.
  • For those with health flexible spending arrangements, the dollar limitation for employee salary reductions for contributions to those health plans is $2,750, an increase of $50 from last year. (Learn more.)
  • For medical expenses, the December stimulus bill enacted a permanent maximum amount of 7.5% of adjusted gross income for deducting medical expenses (without the change, it would have risen to 10%). (Learn more.)
  • If you received a stimulus check under either the March CARES Act or the December stimulus bill, that does not count as taxable income, and will not impact your return. (Learn more.)

There are more details about these tax issues on the IRS website. And there are plenty of companies that would love to help you prepare your taxes — for a fee, of course. (Depending on your annual income, you may be eligible for free preparation support resources, though they’re sometimes harder to find than they should be.) CNET’s Personal Finance crew has prepared a wealth of tax resources to help you, including a series of articles covering the 2020 tax season from every angle.


Tax filings needed to be postmarked by April 15.

Angela Lang/CNET

How do I file my taxes online?

CNET has rounded up the best tax software for 2020, featuring vendors such as TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxSlayer. These companies can make the tax filing process much easier, from reporting your taxable or self-employed income to setting up direct deposit to going through your itemized deductions.

Read more: The best tax software for 2020

That noted, the IRS provides a list of free online tax prep software offered by many of those same providers. You can use this service if you meet certain criteria and have a relatively simple tax situation. Requirements include: You make less than $72,000 annually, you don’t itemize deductions and you don’t own a business. This will likely be helpful for people who do not typically have to file taxes (such as those on SSI or SSDI, or those who are retired) but need to do so this year to claim missing stimulus money (we’ve got instructions on how nonfilers can get started filing taxes this year here).

Of course, if you want to itemize deductions or have a more complex financial situation — you run a business, have investments or generate rental income — you’ll have to pay for a higher tier of service, which can run a couple hundred dollars. Still, for most people, even the most deluxe online package is far less expensive than hiring an authorized tax pro. And if you prefer to keep it old-school, the IRS’ online tax forms handle some but not all of the calculations for you and still allow you to e-file or print and mail.


A number of online tax software providers will help you file for free.


When do I need to file my state taxes?

Your state tax return deadline is likely the same as the federal return deadline: April 15. (Last year, most states extended their deadlines to July 15 to match the federal government’s delayed deadline.) In most states, taxpayers who are granted a federal extension to file automatically receive an equivalent extension to file their state income tax return. 

Can I file my state taxes online?

Many states have their own online tax platforms, which are usually free to use. TurboTax, H&R Block and other online tax tools can also help you file your state return and can import most of the information from a federal return they’ve already prepared, though they usually charge a fee. Check out CNET’s comparison of tax software and services to see which is best for you.

How do I claim missing stimulus money on my taxes?

If you were eligible for all or some of the first stimulus check of up to $1,200 per person or the second stimulus check of up to $600 per person, but that money never arrived (or you were missing a payment for your child dependents), you can claim your missing money on your 2020 tax return as a Recovery Rebate Credit. This credit would either increase the size of your total tax refund or lower the amount of taxes you owe. 

You’ll file for the Recovery Rebate Credit on the 2020 Form 1040 or Form 1040-SR to claim a catch-up stimulus payment. The IRS will provide a Recovery Rebate Credit Worksheet to help you work out if you’re missing a payment and for how much. We’ve got full instructions on how to file for a Recovery Rebate Credit on your taxes here.


Angela Lang/CNET

What if I don’t normally have to file taxes, but want to claim a missing stimulus check? 

If you typically aren’t required to file taxes because you’re on SSI or SSDI, you’re retired, or you don’t meet the IRS’ income threshold, but you need to claim missing stimulus money, you will have to file a 2020 tax return. The good news is, you’ll likely be eligible to use the IRS’ Free File program to do so. We’ve got a guide for how nonfilers can get started filing their 2020 tax return to claim stimulus money here.

When will I get my tax refund?

How quickly you can expect to see your refund depends on how you file, when you file and which payment method you choose. Filing online and filing earlier usually results in faster processing. In a normal year, the typical turnaround ranges from one to three weeks, but given the extreme abnormality of the past year, all bets are off. That noted, the IRS said it will begin processing 2020 tax returns on Feb. 12, and estimates that the first refunds will be sent out via direct deposit the first week of March.

To speed up refunds during the pandemic, the IRS is asking taxpayers to file electronically with direct deposit as soon as possible, so the IRS can deposit your refund right into your bank account. Tax software companies, including IRS Free File partners, are accepting tax returns now, and will transmit those returns to the IRS starting Feb. 12. 

If you choose an e-Collect direct deposit, where your tax preparer’s fee is deducted from your refund, it may add a few more days to your wait. A paper check may take several weeks to arrive. 

Here’s how to estimate your tax refund

Where do I send my taxes?

If you file online, there’s nothing to print out or mail, but we recommend you save an electronic copy for your records regardless. This could be especially useful if a third stimulus check is approved, since for the first two rounds of checks, your eligibility was based on your tax returns.

Otherwise, you’ll need to mail your return to the IRS. The specific mailing address depends on which tax form you use and which state you live in. The IRS has published a list of where to file paper tax returns this year here. However, be warned: The IRS says that due to staffing issues, processing paper returns could take several weeks longer this year. 

How do I send the IRS my tax payment?

If you’re mailing your tax payment, you can elect to have the funds withdrawn directly from your bank account or include a personal check or money order. If you choose the latter, make it payable to “US Treasury” and include your name, address, phone number, Social Security number or Individual Tax ID Number. Under no circumstances should you ever mail cash to the IRS.

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How do I check the status of my refund?

The IRS website features a handy web-based tool that lets you check the status of your refund, and there’s also a mobile app, IRS2Go. You can usually access your refund status about 24 hours after e-filing or four weeks after mailing in a return. To check your status, you’ll need to provide your Social Security number or ITIN, filing status and the exact amount of your refund. If your status is “received,” the IRS has your return and is processing it. “Approved” means your refund is on its way.

The IRS said that the Where’s My Refund tool should be updated on Feb. 22 for those claiming Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit, also referred to as PATH Act returns.

I have questions about my taxes. Can I call the IRS?

There are numerous ways to contact the IRS. The agency no longer offers live online chatting, but you can still submit questions through its online form. If you prefer to talk to a person, the IRS maintains a number of dedicated phone lines that are open Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (local time). Individuals can call 800-829-1040 and businesses can call 800-829-4933. 

And there’s always the Interactive Tax Assistant, an automated online tool that provides answers to a number of tax law questions. It can determine if a type of income is taxable, if you’re eligible to claim certain credits and whether you can deduct expenses on your tax return. It also provides answers for general questions, such as determining your filing status, whether you can claim dependents, if you even have to file a tax return, etc.

If you have a question for the IRS specifically related to stimulus checks and your taxes, the IRS recommends that you check and the Get My Payment application (we’ve got more information on how to contact the IRS for missing stimulus check-related questions here). 

Where can I find help with my taxes?

You can find helpful and affordable assistance by choosing a provider from CNET’s roundup of the best tax software for 2021. But the IRS does offer some free tax help, too. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is designed to offer guidance to people who make less than $54,000 per year, have disabilities or have limited facility with English. And the Tax Counseling for the Elderly program specializes in tax issues that affect people who are 60 or older. Due to COVID-19, however, many VITA sites, and all TCE sites, have been closed. For now the IRS’ International Taxpayer Service Call Center remains available at 267-941-1000, Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET.

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