After Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law on March 27, the Internal Revenue Service started infusing the U.S. economy with $2.2 trillion. That included "economic impact payments," aka stimulus checks, sent to Americans. Under the CARES Act, single adults who earned $75,000 or less in gross income in 2019 are entitled to a one-time payment of $1,200. Married couples can expect $2,400. And families with kids get an additional $500 for each child in the household under age 17.
But what about dead relatives? Evidently, some next of kin are cashing in on them, albeit not of their own doing.
Seven Days learned of at least three Vermonters who have received federal stimulus checks, or direct deposits into their bank accounts, payable to or intended for deceased family members. One died in 2018, the other two in 2019.
"My mother received her stimulus check. She has been dead for two years. WTF?" Susanna Weller of Starksboro, wrote in an email about her mother, Mary Lou Weller, who died in January 2018 at age 77.
Weller didn't live with her mother but served as her medical and legal power of attorney and managed her estate upon her death. Weller said she suspects that the IRS sent the stimulus check to her address because her mother's 2018 tax refund was deposited into a jointly held account. Something similar happened to an Essex woman who received a combined direct deposit on behalf of herself and her husband, who died in January 2019.
This isn't a uniquely Vermont phenomenon. Other news outlets around the country have begun reporting similar stories of stimulus checks sent to departed relatives, as well as living people who aren't entitled to them. According to the IRS, those ineligible for stimulus payments include prison inmates, undocumented immigrants, nonresident aliens, patients held in psychiatric facilities due to criminal offenses, and sexual predators in halfway houses. It's unknown how many of the 130 million payments, totaling more than $200 billion in the first four weeks, went to people by mistake.
But Vermonters who've received or are due to receive more than $450 million in stimulus payments aren't storming federal offices to voice outrage over Uncle Sam's excessive largesse. A spokesperson for Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said his staff hadn't received any reports yet of federal stimulus checks sent to Vermonters' deceased relatives. A spokesperson for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) declined to comment, explaining that constituents' "casework" is considered confidential.
However, a spokesperson for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said that his office has received "a half dozen" such reports from Vermonters whose dearly departed got stimulus money. "We even have our own examples of this within the Leahy staff family," spokesperson David Carle noted in an email.
Carle called such errors "hard to justify" given the "dozens and dozens" of Vermonters who had not received stimulus payments by May 1, funds they need to pay their rent and other bills. He also bemoaned the fact that the IRS has yet to set up a system for making payments to low-income Vermonters who don't have internet access or who didn't file federal tax returns in the last two years.
This isn't the first time in history that stimulus money, Social Security payments and other federal disbursements have been sent to the great beyond. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, passed by Congress after the 2008 financial crisis, the feds sent nearly $18 million to more than 71,500 deceased Social Security recipients. Only about half of that money was eventually returned, a federal audit determined.
Why are some Americans receiving posthumous payments? Alas, the Treasury Department's press office declined to respond directly to Seven Days' calls or emailed questions. Instead, a spokesperson emailed back largely nonresponsive answers cut and pasted from the department's "frequently asked questions" web page. Coincidentally, several of those FAQ answers were added to the IRS Economic Impact Payment Information Center page on the same day as Seven Days' query, suggesting that we're not the only ones digging into such grave errors.
What should Vermonters do with those checks? Despite some initial confusion over who gets to keep what, the IRS and Treasury Department are now telling citizens to return stimulus checks paid to people who are deceased. For direct deposits to the previously departed, Vermonters can send personal checks or money orders. For joint payments, the surviving spouse need return only the portion paid to the decedent. Detailed return instructions can be found at irs.gov.
But it's unclear whether the IRS will try to claw back past-due payments from the passed. If asked to fork over the funds, some American may well quote the late Charlton Heston: "From my cold, dead hands!"