Three-quarters of all Americans get an annual tax refund from the IRS, which often is a family's biggest check of the year. But this tax season could see a repeat of last year's snarls in processing, when about 30 million taxpayers had their returns — and refunds — held up by the IRS. Treasury Department officials warned on Monday that this year's tax season will be a challenge once the IRS starts processing returns on January 24. That's largely due to the IRS' sizable backlog of returns from 2021. As of December 23, the agency had 6 million unprocessed individual returns — a significant reduction from a backlog of 30 million in May, but far higher than the 1 million unprocessed returns that is more typical around the start of tax season. That may make taxpayers nervous about delays in 2022, but most Americans should get their refunds within 21 days of filing, the IRS said on Monday — with some caveats. For instance, errors like math problems or incorrectly stating how much you received from the advanced Child Tax Credit payments could get your tax return flagged, leading to delays of weeks or even months. In the meantime, tax experts say there are some steps taxpayers can take to help ensure a quick tax refund, which is even more important this year given that the IRS is starting with a backlog. On Wednesday, National Taxpayer Advocate Erin M. Collins issued a report to Congress that warned she is "deeply concerned about the upcoming filing season" given the backlog, among other issues. "The first thing you know if you are going to cook a meal, you have to have the kitchen cleaned up from the last meal," said Mark W. Everson, vice chairman at Alliantgroup and former Commissioner of the IRS. "It just snowballs into a terrible situation." Compounding the challenge, tax preparers told CBS MoneyWatch that it remains hard to reach IRS personnel on the phone. Last year, the IRS answered less than 30% of the calls it received, according to Treasury officials. "Back in the old days, you'd wait 5-10 minutes and get an IRS agent on the phone," said Christian Cyr, a CPA and president and chief investment officer at Cyr Financial. But now, he said, his CPAs have waited hours to speak with an IRS employee, with no guarantee of ever reaching one. Ensuring smooth tax filing comes with a lot on the line, given that the average refund last year was about $2,800. Below are tips from tax experts and the IRS on how to get a tax refund within 21 days of filing. File electronically This is a step the IRS is strongly urging this year. Although some people may simply like filing paper returns — and others may have no choice — the agency says that taxpayers who file electronically are more likely to have their returns processed quickly. That's because the IRS relies on computers to electronically process filed returns, while paper returns must be handled by human employees. In the early days of the pandemic, the IRS shut its offices and employees stopped opening mail — delaying processing of paper returns. Even aside from employee strains due to the pandemic, the IRS' staffing hasn't kept up with population growth. The agency's workforce is now the same size it was in 1970, despite the population growing by 60%. That means fewer workers to handle a greater volume of returns. About 10 million people filed paper returns last year, or about 7 . . . read the full article here.