WASHINGTON — Jeanne Siracuse didn't know what to do when she got a notification this week that $1,200 had been deposited into her mother's account. Her mother died last August.
"Obviously, she does not need stimulus right now," Siracuse said by phone from her home in Northern Virginia. "It's not something she would have wanted to happen. She was very conservative and would not want to see that kind of waste."
Relatives of dead Americans all over the country are receiving coronavirus relief payments from the U.S. Treasury Department on behalf of the loved ones this week. Many are confused. Was it a mistake? Are they required to send it back? Some of them have already tried to. Either way, they can rest easy.
The U.S. government plans to allow heirs or spouses of dead people to keep the money, a source familiar with the matter said. A Treasury spokesperson declined to comment but said guidance on the matter is forthcoming.
"We don't want it," Siracuse said of the money, adding that she plans to return it herself with a $1,200 donation from her mother's estate to Treasury. "It's not who this stimulus was supposed to benefit."
Peter Moreau of The Woodlands, Texas, said his mother also got a direct deposit, even though she died in January and her death was reported to the Social Security Administration.
"This is messing up my efforts to close mom's estate since I don't have any idea what to do with it,” he said in an email.
Anecdotes from relatives of the deceased have spread online this week, rankling some Americans who are desperately waiting on their cash transfer so they can pay bills as joblessness rises amid the economic toll of the coronavirus.
Ryan Ellis, a tax lobbyist and preparer, said he has heard from two clients whose dead relatives have been given payments.
"There is an inverse correlation between speed and accuracy. We wanted these fast. Accuracy is necessarily de-emphasized," he said. "We could have had it accurate and slow, or less accurate and fast. In a crisis, it's a no-brainer to pick the latter."
A Trump administration official said the government is looking into the possibility that the CARES Act, as written, may actually authorize payments for people who died this year or last year, if they would have otherwise been eligible in 2019 for the payment.
The $2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress last month doesn't explicitly address the question, although it specifies that "an estate or trust" is not eligible for a payment. But the law bases eligibility on people's tax returns in 2019 or 2018. It's unclear how that applies to people who, based on their 2019 taxes, were otherwise eligible but died at some point during that year.
One congressional aide said there's no provision in the law to claw back the money and that doing so would mean taking money away from widows and widowers.
And even if the government wanted to collect the funds, it may be more effort than it's worth, said Ellis: "Are we going to audit the closed estates and heirs for $1,200? I don’t think so."
Chye-Ching Huang, a fiscal policy expert at the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said a similar situation occurred with stimulus payments in 2008 and that the heirs of the deceased were able to keep the money.
"This is exactly what we would have expected as the IRS is following their consistent procedures in the case of a taxpayer death," she said.
Erin Kurinsky’s mother in Sanford, Fla., was expecting a $1,200 stimulus payment, but she didn't expect an extra $1,200 for her husband, Brendan O’Halloran, who died in May 2019.
Kurinsky's mother had already filed her taxes for 2019 and changed her status from joint to individual following her husband’s death.
"She doesn't know what to do with it. I said, 'Mom, just leave it there, they'll take it back some day," Kurinsky said. "She doesn't even need the $1,200. She said, 'Someone else could use it more than I could.'"
The Social Security Administration maintains a Death Master File with records of deaths that have been reported to the federal government. The file includes the deceased person's name, dates of birth and death, and Social Security number.
Last year, a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the Social Security Administration "provides the entire death file" to the IRS. The Treasury Department also maintains a "Do Not Pay" tool intended to help federal agencies avoid making payments to people and entities that are ineligible.
Kurisnky said all the paperwork documenting her dad's death and settling his accounts had been filed more than half a year ago.
"The Social Security Administration knows that my father is deceased," she said.