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Tax Guide
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Does the IRS owe you money?

There could be cash just waiting for you. Find out by searching the undelivered refunds database.

After all the money you've sent to the government over the years, what could be better than getting some of it back? There are millions of dollars just waiting to be claimed - cash belonging to tens of thousands of people. Could you be one of them? Chief Consumer Correspondent Lea Thompson reports.

WINNING BIG IN Las Vegas, getting lucky at lotto, even finding a few dollars wadded up in the laundry - nothing gets your adrenaline flowing faster than the thought of easy money. Well you could be in luck, because of all things the IRS may be looking for you - and no, not because you owe money. This jackpot is all the sweeter because the IRS may owe you.

There's a huge pot of tax refund gold just waiting to be claimed, a pot of gold most people have never heard of. And we're going to tell you how to get it. You should know every year the post office is unable to deliver tens of thousands of refund checks. As of last year, the undelivered money added up to $67 million. Millions of dollars are still there and some of it just might belong to you.

Why don't these checks find their rightful owners? For a whole host of reasons. People get married. They change their name. They die and their families don't know they are due a refund. Or even an address typo on a tax form can stop a refund. But the biggest reason is that people move and forget to tell the IRS. Most people tell the post office, but until this year, the post office and the IRS did not share address information. And because the post office will not forward a government check, it goes back to the IRS.

"We have some taxpayers that we truly believe have forgotten that they had a refund that was due them," says Estelle Tunley, IRS Deputy Director of Individual Tax Return Processing.

What's the biggest undeliverable refund she's ever seen? "The largest undeliverable refund that I am aware of was $425,000," says Tunley.

How could somebody forget $400,000? "That's a very busy person," says Tunley.

That taxpayer did eventually get his money. Most undelivered refunds are not quite that big, but the average check is still a healthy $734. The good news is the IRS holds that money forever.

It could be something that was owed you 10 years ago? "It possibly could," says Tunley.

Sometimes checks aren't delivered because it's the IRS that makes the mistake. Keith and Lisa Florence-Wickersham did tell the IRS when they got married and moved.

"So they had somehow taken this refund under Keith's Social Security number and attached it to my old address," says Lisa Wickersham.

When that address turned out to be wrong their $2,500 check ended up at their local IRS office. But the Wickershams had mistakenly overpaid and didn't know it, so they never looked for a refund.

The IRS does mail a notice to people whose checks are undeliverable, but the Wickershams never received one. It also releases the names of taxpayers with undeliverable checks. Last year there were 91,000 people on the IRS lists. But the lists are only issued once a year and are broken down by state, so you might see them in small print in some local newspapers or on the local news. But you might not if you've moved or you don't know where to look.

"I had no way of knowing about the list until somebody called and said, вАУвЙ§вАУ–†вАУ¬ЃDid you know you were on this list?" says Keith Wickersham.
"It's great to find out that you have $2,500 coming back," says Lisa Wickersham.

Her husband says, "Yes it does feel like you've re-found new money."

There are people out there, who are going to say, "Well, wait a minute. They have got my hard-earned money. Why don't they give it back? Why don't they come and try to find me?"

To which the IRS replies: "The kind of effort we put forth to try to notify and locate taxpayers in some systemic manner, we believe, is the best approach," says Tunley. "And in some cases there may be no way to locate taxpayers."

The IRS expects to find more people now that it's sharing information with the post office. And many people do eventually get their money when they file the next year's taxes with a correct address. But who wants to wait a year or longer? The IRS doesn't pay interest.

Is there a simple way to find out if you are due money? "You can call the IRS at our toll-free numbers to ask the question," says Tunley. "That toll-free number is: 1-800-tax-1040."

A bill has been introduced in Congress to create a nationwide database of names. But in the meantime, with the IRS's permission, "Dateline" has gathered all the separate state lists and created the first national Web site - 91,000 taxpayers who may still have undelivered refund checks from last year and earlier. So now, for the first time, anyone, anywhere in the world, can go to our interactive, searchable database and find out if today is your lucky day. As soon as the IRS puts together this year's list of undelivered checks, we'll let you know and we'll post that on our Web site, too.

Here's all you have to do. Simply type in your name and you can search nationwide or in any state. If your name appears, simply call the IRS toll-free number.

Because there's always some place to spend unexpected money. "It just came back just as we were doing this year's taxes," says Lisa Wickersham. "So it went right back out again."

If you don't want to gamble with getting your tax refund, the IRS says file by computer and use direct deposit at your bank. And if you move, when you tell your Great Aunt Sylvia, don't forget to tell Uncle Sam, too.

Think you are not owed any money?

Even if you're sure you've received all your refunds, there may be other money out there for you.

  • In addition to refunds that the post office can't deliver, there's an even bigger pot of gold out there - $2.4 billion in refunds that have never been claimed at all.
  • For instance, if you made a mistake and didn't take all your tax deductions or credits, you are probably owed money.
  • Or if you're a part-time or low wage earner or a student and you're not required to file because you don't make enough money, you may still be due a refund. That's because employers withhold federal taxes from paychecks even if you don't owe taxes. But don't dawdle around to collect this money. There's only a three year window to file your back taxes. After that, the money is gone for good.
  • To check, call the IRS toll free number: 1-800-tax-1040.
  • Don't forget to check with your state's Department of Revenue, too, for undelivered state income tax refunds.

By Lea Thompson
MSNBC News (2003)

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