Personal Finance

Families of dead Covid-19 victims may have to give back stimulus checks

Key Points
  • People who have died have received federal stimulus checks.
  • This week, the IRS made it clear that the government wants that money back.
  • But what about recent deaths, including those who succumb to Covid-19?
  • It turns out the requirement could vary, based on the timing of the death and the receipt of those checks.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

The IRS has a clear message for families of the deceased who receive stimulus checks: Give the money back.

But what about those who recently died because of Covid-19?

At least 75,852 U.S. deaths have been caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government is in the process of sending out millions of stimulus checks. On Friday, the Treasury Department said it has sent out almost 130 million payments in less than five weeks. Treasury expects to send more than 150 million stimulus payments in total.

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While many received that money right away via direct deposit, others are still waiting to get their checks by mail.

Payments of up to $1,200 per individual or $2,400 per married couple, plus $500 for children under 17, were authorized by Congress to help families stave off the negative effects of the precipitous economic downturn due to the spread of Covid-19. Those payments target low- to middle-income workers based on certain earnings thresholds.

The IRS guidance released this week was fuzzy on the timing of when a deceased person's family or estate would have to return the funds. That's because it bases its requirement on when the money is received.

"A payment made to someone who died before receipt of the payment should be returned to the IRS by following the instructions about repayments," the agency states on its website.

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Take two people who die on the same day in 2020, for example. One receives the $1,200 stimulus payment via direct deposit the day before he or she passes. The other does not have direct deposit information on file with the IRS, and is therefore waiting for a check in the mail.

The first person's family is able to keep the money, said Janet Holtzblatt, senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. But for the second person, the outcome is less clear. If the check is sent to family, do they have to return it?

Alternatively, the guidance could have said that anyone who died in 2020 would get to keep the money, Holtzblatt said.

"Having a set date would provide much more certainty for families than the date of receipt," she said. "It would be treating people similarly rather than making it variable as to when the payment was actually received."

For families in this situation, Holtzblatt advises that they do not spend the money yet.

"I predict more guidance. I predict changes in this," she said.

The IRS did not have further comment beyond the information on its website.

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