How to qualify for a surprise refund

Serious adult woman using smart phone standing in a park a sunny day
Pheelings media / Shutterstock

This is the story behind the out-of-the-blue refunds: As employers cut back on hours or shut down last year due to COVID-19, millions of Americans found themselves out of work — and filed for unemployment benefits.

Normally, unemployment checks are taxed the same as any other income. But the Biden pandemic relief package from March allowed people who claimed jobless benefits in 2020 to exclude lots of that money from taxes: up to $10,200 for individuals, and $20,400 for couples filing jointly.

By the time the president signed the American Rescue Plan into law, many people had already paid their taxes. If your income was below $150,000 last year, you collected unemployment and filed your 2020 taxes relatively early, you may have paid too much — and qualified for an unanticipated refund.

The money is supposed to come automatically, based on the banking and address information from your tax return. But the refunds have been slowed by a massive backlog the IRS has been working through.

If you've been hoping Congress will eventually approve another stimulus check, that's looking doubtful — so one of these refunds might be the next best thing.

Refund distribution isn't done

Internal Revenue Service federal building Washington DC USA
AevanStock / Shutterstock

In May, when the IRS first started surprising taxpayers with money back they hadn't expected, the agency said it was looking over the returns of more than 10 million people who had paid taxes on unemployment benefits ahead of the rescue bill.

By July, the IRS said it had paid out more than 8.7 million unemployment compensation refunds worth a total of over $10 billion. But the work wasn't finished: Officials said in a news release that the IRS would "continue reviewing and adjusting tax returns in this category" throughout the summer.

A new update has come from the National Taxpayer Advocate, whose office works independently within the IRS. Advocate Erin Collins wrote in a late September blog post that the tax agency is working to pay out more of the refunds.

"It is unclear how many more accounts need to be adjusted," Collins said, while indicating that 436,000 tax returns were potential refund candidates but needed review.

The money back can be respectable. The IRS said the average refund in the most recent batch, announced on July 28, was $1,686.

What if you're not likely to get a refund?

Young couple doing paperwork in kitchen and needing a surprise tax refund.
WAYHOME studio / Shutterstock

If your bank account could use an infusion of cash, but you're not likely to get a surprise tax refund, here are some steps to give your finances a boost on your own.

  • Cut the cost of your debt. While credit cards are convenient when you’re short on cash, the interest can turn into a real money-suck over time. If you leaned too heavily on your plastic during the pandemic, a lower-interest debt consolidation loan can cut your interest costs and help you pay off your debts faster.

  • Tame your student loans. Americans are saddled with nearly $139 billion in student loan debt owed to banks and other private lenders, according to data firm MeasureOne. But interest rates on student loan refinances are close to all-time lows. By refinancing your student loan, you could save thousands in interest and potentiall pay off the debt years ahead of schedule.

  • Refinance your mortgage, if you've got one. Close to half the homeowners who refinanced during the first year of economic turmoil caused by the pandemic are now saving at least $300 a month, a recent survey found. Rates on refi loans are still historically low, so it's not too late to trade in a pre-COVID loan with a high rate and slash your monthly payment.

  • Insist on deals when you shop online. Once you’ve gotten a grip on your debt, make sure you’re keeping your daily expenses down, so you won't land in trouble again. Next time you're ready to shop online, stop and download a free browser extension that will automatically scour for better prices and coupons.

  • Turn your pocket change into profits. If you don’t have much experience — or capital — to make money in the sizzling stock market, download a popular app that allows you to invest your "spare change", and grow your pennies into a portfolio.

About the Author

Sigrid Forberg

Sigrid Forberg


Sigrid is a reporter with MoneyWise. Before joining the team, she worked for a B2B publication in the hardware and home improvement industry and ran an internal employee magazine for the federal government. As a graduate of the Carleton University Journalism program, she takes pride in telling informative, engaging and compelling stories.

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