How millions of veterans could miss out on coronavirus stimulus checks

Key Points
  • The IRS requires eligible households to file a tax return in order to receive their money.
  • But many veterans and their survivors who rely solely on government benefits do not typically have to submit a return.
  • This year, that means they could also fall through the cracks of the stimulus program.
Martin Traiser of Yarmouth, a member of the Marine Corps League, holds his rifle at attention during the playing of Taps at the ceremony at Portland City Hall that was held after the Veterans Day parade on Monday, November 11, 2019.
Gregory Rec | Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

As many as 2 million veterans could miss out on the federal stimulus payments that started arriving in Americans' bank accounts this week, prompting outcries from advocates and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The checks can total up to $1,200 per person and are being dispersed through the IRS, which requires eligible households to file a tax return in order to receive their money. But many veterans and their survivors who rely solely on government benefits, such as disability payments from Veterans Affairs, do not typically have to submit a return. 

This year, that means they could also fall through the cracks of the stimulus program.

"I served my country. I was ready to go to war," said Dennis Arellano, 61, a Marine Corps veteran who now lives in San Jose. "I think they should consider something about that."

Veterans groups estimate roughly 1.9 million veterans and their survivors could be in this category, based on the number who were in a similar situation during the Great Recession. Advocates argue that the federal government already has bank account information for those households since they receive veteran's benefits. And they're calling on the VA, IRS and Treasury Department to work together to waive the filing requirement.

"We are gravely concerned that absent quick and decisive action from the Administration, millions of seriously disabled veterans, their survivors and caregivers – who are among the most vulnerable Americans during the ongoing coronavirus health crisis – may never receive this critical financial support," a dozen of the nation's largest veterans service organizations wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie this month.

On Friday, the IRS launched an online tool that allows households who do not typically file a tax return to submit basic personal information in order to receive their payments quickly. The site specifically encourages disabled veterans and their survivors to fill out the form. 

"President Trump, Secretary Mnuchin and the administration are fully committed to providing fast and direct economic impact payments to all Americans entitled to them, and we are particularly sensitive to the needs of our nations' heroes and survivors," a Treasury spokeswoman said. 

But the effort falls short of the fix that lawmakers have demanded. Many affected veterans may not have a computer or internet access to submit their information, forcing them to venture out of their homes to a post office to get the necessary forms instead. Earlier this month, Treasury waived the filing requirement entirely for Social Security recipients. Veterans should also be able to receive their payments automatically, they said.

"To put this hurdle in front of them will be wrong," House Veterans Affairs Chairman Mark Takano said of the filing requirement. "They are people who need this stimulus payment the most."

Earlier this month, Takano and other leading House Democrats, including Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, urged Treasury to resolve the problem. In the Senate, Democrats called automatic payments "the fastest, most cost-effective way to provide desperately needed help" in a letter to the Trump administration. GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona sent a similar letter, stating "our nation's veterans … deserve better."

Takano said he spoke recently with a top official at the VA who expressed "eagerness" to resolve the problem by cross-referencing agency databases. 

"I believe they can find a solution," he told CNBC. "They've done it before."

In the meantime, Patrick Murray, who handles legislative affairs for the VFW, called the IRS' new online tool a good step in the right direction. The challenge now, he said, is educating veterans about the guidelines for getting payments and the resources available for them as new information is released. 

Arellano, the Marine Corp veteran, was not planning to file a tax return this year until he heard about the stimulus. He said that he lives off the $435 a month that he receives in VA benefits and that he's confused about what paperwork needs to be filled out. But he knows that it would make a big difference -- both financially and mentally.

"I'm alone, you know. So if something happens to me, they're going to open the door and they're going to find me dead," he said. "That's what I'm really, really scared of. If I feel bad, there's nobody I can call."