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When Your Stimulus Check Isn't What You Expected

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/17/2020 Richard Rubin
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The U.S. government sent more than 80 million direct-deposited stimulus payments this week, and the amounts popping up in bank accounts are coming as a surprise to some Americans.

Some are finding less than they expected. Others think they are getting too much. Some say money is going into bank accounts they don’t recognize. And still others are struggling to decipher error messages from an Internal Revenue Service website.

“When I looked at it, I was like, I don’t get it,” said Nicole Ewens of Warner-Robins, Ga., who was missing the $500 payment for her 21-month-old son. “That is a lot of diapers.”

As the government tries to help Americans cope with the rapid economic fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, there is inevitably a trade-off between speed and precision.

“The IRS has done an incredible job under incredible pressure in awful conditions,” said Nina Olson, who recently retired as national taxpayer advocate at the IRS.

Compared with 2008, the last time the government sent out similar payments, the IRS is moving much faster, with the first payments coming within weeks instead of months. In 2008, an inspector general’s report found that the IRS correctly calculated 99.6% of payments.

The IRS could have tried to let people check the financial information that’s on file before sending money. Instead, Ms. Olson said, “The emphasis was on ‘get the money out fast, and we will deal with mistakes and snafus downstream.’”

Kristian Lamb found a welcome $1,200 in her bank account and spent it on accumulated bills. But she didn’t get the additional $1,500 she expected for her three children under age 12, and she can’t figure out why.

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“I only can just sit around and wait and just try to survive,” said Ms. Lamb, who works in home health care in Columbus, Ga. “It is hard being a single mother of three. The economy just changed like this.”

Brian Luscher of Prescott, Ariz., has the opposite problem. A $1,200 stimulus payment appeared in the account he created for his stepmother’s finances—after she died last year. He is going to leave the money there and wait for government instructions.

“I was just astounded to see this thing hit her account,” he said.

Related video: Stimulus Package Renews Spotlight on Universal Basic Income

Some say the money appears to have gone to the wrong bank account or that they were having trouble getting information from an IRS tool launched this week that is supposed to let people track payments and update bank information.

This time, the payments are $1,200 per adult and $500 per child. Recipients must have a Social Security number to qualify, and dependents over age 16 are ineligible. Payments shrink and then disappear as an individual’s income rises above $75,000 and a married couple’s income rises above $150,000.

The law requires the IRS to use a 2019 tax return to determine eligibility and 2018 returns if those aren’t available. In some cases, the IRS seems to have used 2018 information even for people who filed 2019 returns.

Allan Caballero of Piscataway, N.J. and his wife filed their 2019 return in January, claiming their two-year-old and seven-month-old children and received their regular tax refund. But his stimulus payment was $2,900, not $3,400 for married couples with two children.

“That money that we didn’t receive, it is money that I would use to feed my family for three weeks,” he said.

Susan Brown of Detroit, who was expecting $1,200, got through on the IRS website and found that the money had been deposited in a bank account—just not her bank account. And she isn’t sure what to do now. 

“You can’t talk to anybody at the IRS,” she said. “There’s nobody answering any of the phones.”

The IRS doesn’t have clear guidance for people who think they got incorrect amounts. For those with payments sent to bank accounts that have since been closed, the IRS says it will see that rejected payment and mail a paper check.

Some can use the “Get My Payment” tool at the IRS website to update their bank information, but the system may not allow such changes if the payment has already been processed.

After every payment, the IRS is sending letters within 15 days with instructions in case people didn’t get the money.

Those who got less than they should have received can claim the rest when they file 2020 tax returns in early 2021.

It is trickier for those who think they got too much. If payment amounts are technically right—someone whose income is too high now but was in the right range in 2018—the payment doesn’t have to be returned. But the law gives the Treasury Department authority to prevent multiple payments to the same person.

Drew Persons of Baltimore isn’t eligible because of his income, and his 20-year-old son shouldn’t be either, because he is claimed as a dependent. But his son filed a 2019 tax return after working a summer job, and $1,200 showed up in his bank account. When Mr. Persons saw the payment, he said he woke his son up and double-checked his tax return to see that dependent status.

“I advised him not to spend it,” Mr. Persons said.


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