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Tax Day was two months ago, but millions of Americans are still waiting on their returns to be processed. If they have questions in the meantime, they may not have many options to get them answered.
According to an agency report, at the end of the 2021 tax filing season, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) found itself with a backlog of more than 35 million tax returns. Those languishing returns require manual processing by IRS employees. About half of the unprocessed returns were submitted on paper.
The frustration of waiting to receive confirmation your return was processed—or that your refund is finally on the way—could get even worse if you try to call the IRS looking for more info.
Only 7% of callers to account-management lines at the IRS were able to reach a live human, according to the midyear report, which National Taxpayer Advocate Erin M. Collins compiled.
For the phone line for people seeking help with their Form 1040 for tax returns (the most frequently called IRS helpline, according to the agency), only 3% of callers reached a representative.
The agency received more than four times as many calls in the 2021 filing season as it did in 2019, the agency noted. And on top of Covid-19 closures that limited staff availability, the IRS has endured budget cuts and labor shortages that have decreased the size of its workforce.
“IRS employees could not keep pace with this massive volume of calls, resulting in the poorest service ever,” in spring 2021, an agency release stated.
Whether people are trying to respond to mailed notices from the IRS or want to check on the status of their refund, they often want to go directly to a real person to get answers to their matters instead of checking online, says Alton Bell II.
Bell is the principal accountant and founder at Bell Tax Accountants & Advisors, based in Chicago, and says “It’s up to taxpayers to be patient” as they try to get answers to their questions.
What’s a taxpayer to do if you have questions and the information in your online account doesn’t solve the mystery? What if the IRS sends you a billing notice for something you already paid? Bell offers a few tips for maintaining your cool as you navigate IRS systems during this trying time.
1. Keep Calling and Stay Prepared
The process of calling the IRS can be daunting. You may work your way through automated systems only to be stuck on hold for hours, taking time out of your day.
But Bell says you may need to call often to reach a representative. He recommends calling early in the morning or just before the IRS phone lines (which are open Monday to Friday, 7 am to 7 pm) close for your time zone. You may be able to avoid crowds on the phone lines by calling first thing in the morning or as the day winds down.
But whenever you call, Bell says to be prepared so you can get the help you need when you do reach an IRS agent.
“Citizens may think that once they reach the IRS, they’ve got a live person, that the agent knows about their particular case.” But Bell warns they don’t have that info in front of them instantly, so it’s important to have all your information ready to answer the agent’s questions. Have a copy of your most recent return, your previous year’s return, and any notices from the IRS handy.
In many cases, you’ll need to reference information on your previous year’s taxes to verify your identity during your conversation, such as your adjusted gross income. If your most recent tax return is still processing, and you don’t have your old return nearby, you’ll have wasted your time on hold because the agent won’t be able to help you, Bell warns.
2. Lean on Your Tax Professional
If you worked with an enrolled agent or accountant to file your taxes, contact them to get further insight into the issue you’re having with the IRS. They may not be able to speed up delays in the IRS system, but they can help you decipher notices from the agency and call on your behalf if further information is needed.
If you haven’t worked with a tax professional before and want extra help figuring out your situation, you might consider contacting one in your area. Expect to pay a fee for their services if you’re a new client, as the accountant or tax preparer will need time to get familiar with your situation before calling (and waiting on hold) on your behalf.
Bell said it’s been difficult for the pros to get through to the IRS to get answers to their clients’ questions, too, with the average wait time on the “priority” line for tax professionals is around 30 minutes.
3. Contact Your Local IRS Office
While most local IRS taxpayer assistance centers were closed during the height of the pandemic, they’ve started to reopen in many areas. These offices can help you with account problems, allow you to make payments or adjustments, and look into issues with your stimulus payments.
Search for your nearest IRS office and use the phone number specified to make an appointment.
If you live very close to an office, Bell says you can also walk in to request an appointment for the future. If you take this route, he recommends taking your documents with you, just in case there’s an immediate opening.
IRS taxpayer assistance centers are open Monday through Friday, and some are closed for a brief period during the workday for lunch.
4. Contact the Taxpayer Advocate Service
If you’ve exhausted the first three methods, it may be time to exercise your last resort: The Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS). It’s an independent office within the IRS that works to protect taxpayers, and it’s free to use. Since 2011, the TAS has handled more than 2 million taxpayer cases.
Every state has at least one TAS office. If you haven’t been able to reach anyone at the IRS or haven’t received a response in the time frame you were promised, the TAS may be able to help you; If your problem is causing a financial struggle while you wait for a resolution, you may also qualify for help.
What Not to Do to Try to Get Answers From the IRS
Being persistent when you call the IRS and even trying some of the tips for navigating the automated system may help you get what you need in due time. Just remember that you’re not the only taxpayer in this frustrating situation—you’re one of millions trying to get answers.
With routine taxes this year on top of three stimulus rounds and the enhanced child tax credit, “That’s a lot to put on any system, from an infrastructure and manpower standpoint,” Bell says.
What not to do? Don’t put the IRS on blast on social media (they’re not listening, bell says), and don’t ask your friends’ friend who works for the IRS to look into your case for you.
“They can’t help you. You don’t want to get them in trouble,” Bell says.