The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law March 27, 2020, included one-time payments of up to $1,200 to millions of eligible individuals, based on their income. To determine who was eligible, the IRS looked at 2018 and 2019 tax returns, without first cross-checking with the Social Security Administration’s master file of U.S. deaths, which apparently would have taken weeks.
As a result, some individuals who passed away after filing 2018 or 2019 taxes have been receiving relief payments, causing confusion for their families. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2.8 million people died in 2018, which means the IRS potentially could have sent out millions of checks to deceased individuals. Although Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in an interview that the money had to be returned, the IRS was slow to explain how exactly to go about doing that.
The IRS has now issued guidance, clarifying that the money must be returned. According to the agency, the full amount of the payment sent to a deceased individual should be returned unless there is a surviving spouse. In that case, only the deceased spouse’s portion should be returned. Checks should be voided and returned by mail to the IRS. If a family member cashed a check or the money was received via direct deposit, the recipient of the funds should send the funds back via a personal check or money order.
Whether you have to return the money is another question. “There’s no legal interpretation,” Nina Olson, a former IRS official and current executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights, told The Wealth Advisor. “I don’t know how they’re basing their decision” to request the money be returned. Olson said it is “unlikely” the IRS would sue taxpayers for the erroneously awarded stimulus money.