Liz Weston: If you need to find tax help, try DIY first

In this April 23, 2020, file photo, a stimulus check issued by the IRS to help combat the adverse economic effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, is displayed in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Getting help from the IRS this tax season is going to be a challenge.

The IRS has finally opened the 23.4 million pieces of mail that piled up after the pandemic shuttered its processing centers last spring. But the agency still has a backlog of paperwork from last year even as it ingests this year’s returns, issues a third round of relief payments and gears up to send monthly child tax credit payments to millions of families.

The tax deadline has been moved from April 15 to May 17, giving people more time to file. Getting help is another matter. Callers face long wait times with no guarantee they’ll reach a human being. Meanwhile, many tax help sites are closed or working at reduced capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Here are some common questions and answers that could save you some time or point you to resources that will help.

Where’s my stimulus payment?

The IRS dispatched two rounds of economic impact payments last year. If you didn’t receive your payments or received less than you should have, you can claim the “recovery rebate credit ” on your 2020 tax return that’s due May 17.

The third relief payment, created by the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that President Joe Biden signed into law March 11, started arriving in bank accounts shortly afterward . The rules are somewhat different for this relief check, which is worth up to $1,400 per person. For the first time, all dependents of eligible taxpayers can get the payment, including college students. Also, there is a steeper phaseout : Single filers with adjusted gross incomes up to $75,000 can receive the full amount, but the payment decreases above that level and zeroes out at $80,000. The phaseout range is $112,500 to $120,000 for heads of household, and $150,000 to $160,000 for married couples filing jointly. Payments will be based on adjusted gross income on 2020 returns, if those have been filed, and on 2019 returns otherwise.

None of the payments are taxable, and you typically won’t have to repay the money if you get too much. Taxpayers can check the IRS’ Get My Payment tool to track the status of their relief payments.

In addition to the relief payments, monthly payments of up to $300 per child are expected to begin in July and continue through December. This enhanced child tax credit begins to phase out at adjusted gross incomes of $75,000 for singles, $112,500 for heads of household and $150,000 for joint returns.

How do I get a refund of the taxes I paid on unemployment benefits?

The latest stimulus package also exempts $10,200 of last year’s unemployment benefits from taxation for people with adjusted gross incomes under $150,000. The IRS has promised to automatically refund the appropriate amounts to those who already filed their 2020 returns before the stimulus deal was signed.

Where can I get free tax help?

Most taxpayers can file their federal taxes online for free, using software that guides them through their returns and checks for errors. The IRS’ Free File program is available for taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes of up to $72,000. Unfortunately, some online tax preparers promise free filing but then divert users into paid options , so it’s best to begin the process on the IRS’ Free File page at

If you need more help, you may be able to get free assistance through the IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs , although many of the programs are operating differently this year. Some sites are temporarily closed and others are not operating at full capacity, but the programs also have added low- and no-contact options.

For example, the largest such program, AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide , has added online and drop-off services, says Lynnette Lee-Villanueva , program vice president. In-person sessions are still available but only by appointment.

I got a notice! What do I do now?

Consumer advocates have criticized the IRS for continuing with collection and enforcement actions while the agency was still dealing with its backlog. (As of Jan. 29, the IRS still hadn’t processed 6.7 million tax returns from 2019.) In some cases, taxpayers received past-due notices for payments already made. Sometimes the notice itself was so delayed that the taxpayer didn’t have enough time to respond before penalties were levied.

The IRS has information on its coronavirus tax relief hub about how its “mission-critical functions ” have been affected. The website offers details on what you can expect and what you can do next if you received a bill or notice. If you’ve taken steps to resolve the issue that prompted the notice, for example, the IRS recommends doing nothing further — simply wait for the agency to catch up.

If your issue is pressing, though, you can try the number listed on the notice and consider contacting the Taxpayer Advocate Service office in your state. You also could hire a CPA or enrolled agent , who can give you advice and represent you with the IRS.