Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect the latest information.
En español | Most people would be happy to find an extra $1,200 in their mailbox or bank account — unless, of course, the unexpected windfall was earmarked for someone who died. Not only is the money a painful reminder of a loved one's absence, it raises vexing questions: What do I do with it? Should I spend it? Send it back? And if so, how?
That was the dilemma facing Americans who have received $1,200 stimulus payments, by paper check or direct deposit, in the names of deceased spouses and other family members. The federal government sent stimulus payments to about 1.1 million dead people totaling nearly $1.4 billion. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) finally has an answer: Give the money back.
The IRS now says it has canceled outstanding checks made out to the dead. If you received a payment via debit card or direct deposit for a deceased person, you must return it. You must return a canceled check, too. “A [stimulus] payment made to someone who died before receipt of the payment should be returned to the IRS by following the instructions about repayments,” according to updated guidance posted on IRS.gov on May 6. “Return the entire payment unless the payment was made to joint filers and one spouse had not died before receipt of the payment, in which case, you only need to return the portion of the payment made on account of the decedent. This amount will be $1,200 unless adjusted gross income exceeded $150,000.”
The Treasury and the IRS didn’t use death records to stop payments to dead people because the IRS did not think they had the authority to deny payments to those who filed a 2019 tax return, according to the Government Accountability Office. Treasury also noted that the CARES Act required them to distribute the checks as quickly as possible. The GAO says that IRS should take additional steps to tell people how to return checks made out to dead people.
Since early May, AARP has been urging the Treasury department and the IRS to clarify the rules and procedures on returning stimulus checks sent to deceased people.
Nina Olson, executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights, noted that the IRS position was different in 2008, when the government distributed stimulus payments during the Great Recession. Back then, some dead people also received checks, but the IRS didn't make an effort to get the money returned.
Olson is puzzled by the IRS’s newly announced guidance for this round of stimulus. “What is the legal reasoning for this and why is this position different from the IRS’s position in 2008?” she said in an email to AARP. “The government is entitled to change its mind, but without explaining its rationale, this position appears arbitrary and capricious.”
While returning checks sent to the dead was not mandated by the CARES Act, at least one ethics expert thinks it’s the right thing to do. "Most if not all of those people who received a check intended for a dead relative know that it was an error,” says Jeffrey Seglin, senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University and author of The Right Thing, a weekly ethics column. “The stimulus money was not intended to go to dead people. Ethically, the right thing would be to not cash the check."
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How do you return a stimulus payment?
The IRS provided specific instructions for returning an economic impact payment (EIP) sent to a person who is dead.
If the payment was a paper check and it hasn’t been cashed:
- Write "Void" in the endorsement section on the back of the check.
- Mail the voided Treasury check immediately to the appropriate IRS location for your state.
- Don't staple, bend or paper clip the check.
- Include a note stating the reason for returning the check.
If the payment was a paper check and you have cashed it, or if the payment was a direct deposit:
- Submit a personal check, money order, etc., immediately to the appropriate IRS location for your state.
- Write on the check/money order made payable to “U.S. Treasury” and write “2020EIP,” and the taxpayer identification number (Social Security number, or individual taxpayer identification number) of the recipient of the check.
- Include a brief explanation of the reason for returning the EIP.
IRS mailing addresses to send uncashed stimulus checks and reimbursements
If you live in…
Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont: Andover Refund Inquiry Unit, 310 Lowell St, Mail Stop 666A, Andover, MA 01810
Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Virginia: Atlanta Refund Inquiry Unit, 4800 Buford Hwy, Mail Stop 112, Chamblee, GA 30341
Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas: Austin Refund Inquiry Unit, 3651 S Interregional Hwy 35, Mail Stop 6542, Austin, TX 78741
New York: Brookhaven Refund Inquiry Unit, 5000 Corporate Ct., Mail Stop 547, Holtsville, NY 11742
Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming: Fresno Refund Inquiry Unit, 5045 E Butler Avenue, Mail Stop B2007, Fresno, CA 93888
Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, West Virginia: Kansas City Refund Inquiry Unit, 333 W Pershing Rd, Mail Stop 6800, N-2, Kansas City, MO 64108
Alabama, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee: Memphis Refund Inquiry Unit, 5333 Getwell Rd Mail Stop 8422, Memphis, TN 38118
District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island: Philadelphia Refund Inquiry Unit, 2970 Market St, DP 3-L08-151, Philadelphia, PA 19104
A foreign country, U.S. possession or territory, or use an APO or FPO address, or file Form 2555 or 4563, or are a dual-status alien: Austin Refund Inquiry Unit, 3651 S Interregional Hwy 35, Mail Stop 6542 AUSC, Austin, TX 78741