One of the most widely anticipated provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act are the one-time stimulus checks promised to Americans in the coming weeks. But some seniors and disabled adults have been left understandably confused about whether and how they will receive the $1,200 per adult checks.
After seeing a variety of headlines and conflicting information, millions of seniors might be anxious over what’s true. Do they get a stimulus check? Yes, definitely. Do they need to file a tax return if they don’t normally have to do so because their income is low? Not if they get Social Security benefits, but they might want to anyway in certain cases.
Here’s what seniors need to know about their COVID-19 stimulus checks—and what they need to keep an eye on as the situation continues to develop.
Start at the beginning. What happened?
President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act into law on March 27. This stimulus package included numerous provisions to grant Americans financial relief during the coronavirus crisis, including one-time stimulus payments to help keep them afloat. The payments are $1,200 per adult (meaning $2,400 for a married couple filing jointly), plus an additional $500 per qualifying child. These payments get lower as incomes rise; the total phaseout amounts, meaning adjusted gross income is too much to qualify for a stimulus payment, are $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for married couples filing jointly. (That’s for couples without qualifying children; payments for children begin to phase out at those levels.)
One key thing to know: The stimulus checks will be based on 2019 tax returns (or 2018, for those who filed in 2018 but haven’t yet filed for 2019).
So what about the 20 million or so Americans who rely on Social Security and don’t file tax returns each year because their income is too low for them to owe taxes? The CARES Act includes a special provision to make sure these individuals still receive checks. The act clearly stated the Treasury could use information contained on 2019 SSA-1099s—a form reporting Social Security benefits to both the recipient and the IRS— or similar RRB-1099s, to send stimulus payments to those individuals.
But on March 30, the IRS issued guidance that went against the CARES Act, stating “some seniors and others who typically do not file returns will need to submit a simple tax return to receive the stimulus payment.”
Then, the confusion (and outrage) began. Making these individuals file tax returns seemed to go against the explicit wording in the CARES Act and to present logistical challenges for seniors who might not have internet access or a way to get help filing even a simple return, what with tax preparation businesses and volunteer tax assistance centers shuttered.
Was the IRS wrong?
Yes, it appears so.
Forbes contributor Kelly Phillips Erb, a tax attorney, reached out to the federal government asking for guidance on the confusing IRS language. It turns out she wasn’t the only one; 41 U.S. Senators wrote a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the Social Security Administration expressing alarm over the guidance, and demanded it be fixed.
On April 1, after normal business hours, the Treasury and IRS issued a statement backtracking on the requirement of tax returns for Social Security beneficiaries.
“The U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service today announced that Social Security beneficiaries who are not typically required to file tax returns will not need to file an abbreviated tax return to receive an Economic Impact Payment. Instead, payments will be automatically deposited into their bank accounts,” reads the statement.
So, I don’t need to file a tax return?
According to the most recent IRS statement, no. Social Security beneficiaries do not need to file a tax return in order to receive their stimulus payments.
But I heard I need to do something if I have qualifying dependents.
That is correct.
Individuals who don’t normally file tax returns but have dependents were instructed to use the Non-Filers Tool to send additional information to the IRS, since qualifying dependents are eligible for an additional $500 in stimulus payment. The deadline for Social Security and railroad retirees (RRB recipients) to provide this information was April 22. If you are included in this group but did not file additional information to the IRS, you can receive your extra $500 per qualifying dependent after filing a tax return (for 2020) next year.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Veterans Affairs (VA) beneficiaries who don’t normally file tax returns and have qualifying dependents have until May 5 to provide additional information to receive the $500 per qualifying dependent. You can provide your information using the Non-Filers Tool on the IRS website.
There are reports of individuals submitting qualifying dependent information through the non-filers tool (before the deadline) and still not receiving the additional $500 per qualifying dependent. One advocacy group is calling for the IRS to send out these payments this year, instead of making this group file a tax return next year and receive the dependent money then.
What if I get my Social Security benefits on a government debit card instead of direct deposit? How will I receive my stimulus check?
If you qualify for a stimulus check, you will receive it on your existing Direct Express card. If you don’t have a Direct Express card, you cannot sign up now to receive your stimulus payment on the card.
This federally-issued debit card is designed specifically for Social Security and other federal beneficiaries who don’t have bank accounts. Some 4.5 million Americans use Direct Express and most of them are unbanked, meaning they don’t have bank accounts to receive direct deposits.
The original Treasury announcement on April 1 didn’t give specific guidance on if these debit cards would be utilized for stimulus payment. Retirement experts pushed for clarity, stating that putting stimulus payments on these cards would be the smartest and safest way to get these payments to qualifying seniors without bank accounts as quickly as possible.
Now, the IRS and Direct Express have confirmed that these cards will be loaded with stimulus payments.
“IRS will pay Economic Impact Payments automatically to the existing Direct Express® card accounts of most eligible Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Veterans, and Railroad Retirement Board recipients,” reads the Direct Express FAQ on stimulus payments, which can be found as a PDF on the website’s homepage.
The Direct Express FAQ adds that cardholders can sign up for text or email alerts for deposit information, or can log on to their account online and check there. Cardholders also have the option of calling the toll-free phone number on the back of their card, but due to the COVID-19 situation, call wait times will probably be longer than usual. If you have access to the internet, you’re probably better off logging online and checking your account.
So when can I expect my money?
Direct Express’ FAQ says most eligible recipients with a card will receive their stimulus payments by early May.
SSI and VA beneficiaries likely won’t see payments until after May 5, which is the deadline for providing additional information about qualifying dependents.
Those who are waiting for paper checks will have to wait even longer to see their money. The IRS will begin sending out paper checks at a rate of 5 million per week, starting in early May. Low-income households will be first on the list to have checks mailed to them.
The IRS does have a tool that lets individuals check on the status of their stimulus checks, called the “Get My Payment” tool. This tool is notoriously glitchy, and since the deadline for SSI and VA beneficiaries to submit additional information about qualifying dependents hasn’t passed yet, those individuals cannot check the status of their payment
So far, the IRS has delivered over 89 million stimulus checks, equaling $160 billion. That’s more than half of the 150 million payments expected to be sent out in total.