The IRS's Treasury Offset Program takes out money owed for various reasons prior to issuing a refund check. For example, if you owe child support, your refund can be applied to the child support owed. In addition, if you owe state income taxes, the refund will be applied to your state tax debt; if there is any money left over, you will be issued a refund.
If you are not going to get your refund, the IRS sends you a notification. You will get a letter that will show the original amount of the refund, the amount of the offset and which agency received the payment. There is also contact information in the notice so you can speak with the agency about the situation, if needed.
If you owe taxes from a previous year, you might still get a refund, depending upon how much you owe in back taxes and penalties. For example, if you owe $500 in back taxes, fines and penalties but your refund is $675, you will get a refund check for $175.
If you owe taxes, you might find that your refund is running late. When taxes are past due, your tax return might be set aside for further processing. In some cases, this extra processing time can add up to a delay of months.
If you owe taxes, you might also find your state income tax refund being withheld. For example, before North Carolina can issue any kind of tax refund check, the law requires it to make sure there are no outstanding debts for a state agency or the IRS. Before the refund check is given to you, any outstanding amount will be removed.
In the event the taxes owed are on a joint return but the debt is not yours, you can file to get a portion of the refund by using an "Injured Spouse Allocation" Form 8379. After submitting that form with a copy of your previously filed Form 1040, a check for your share of the refund will be sent.