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Senators call on IRS to automatically send stimulus checks to seniors

First on NBC News: The tax agency created confusion this week by saying some Social Security recipients would need to submit a form to get the cash.
Image: Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., speaks at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on March 5, 2020.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., speaks at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on March 5, 2020.Samuel Corum / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — More than three dozen Democratic senators are pressuring the Trump administration to rescind or clarify new guidance that tells seniors to file a tax return to receive a stimulus payment.

Led by Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the senators wrote a letter Wednesday taking issue with IRS guidelines that say seniors who don't submit returns "will need to file a simple tax return to receive an economic impact payment" under the coronavirus package.

The agency mentioned Social Security recipients in that category, which has caused confusion among some elderly Americans — an estimated 64 million Americans received Social Security benefits last year, and many aren't required to file tax returns.

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"This filing requirement would place a significant burden on retired seniors and individuals who experience disabilities, especially given the current unavailability of tax filing assistance from Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs during the COVID-19 crisis," the senators wrote in the letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul, which was first reported by NBC News.

They called on the IRS to make the payments automatic without requiring seniors to file returns.

The signatories include Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking member of the Finance Committee, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former candidates Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Hassan's office argued that IRS guidance goes against the language of the law, which states that for non-tax-filing seniors, Treasury may use Social Security statements like forms SSA-1099 or RRB-1099 to determine eligibility and make payments.

It is unclear whether the IRS will fall back on those Social Security statements or whether failure to file at least a simple tax return will disqualify elderly Americans.

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A spokesperson for the IRS said Wednesday afternoon that the agency had nothing to add to its guidelines from Monday but to watch for updates.

The relief payments to help Americans through the COVID-19 emergency are available to individuals who earn less than $99,000 or married couples who make up to $198,000. They max out at $1,200 per person.

Chuck Marr, a tax policy expert at the progressive-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, estimated that more than 15 million Social Security beneficiaries "who currently don't file tax returns and aren't otherwise required to do so would have to file, if Treasury doesn't use its authority to get those people payments automatically."