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Relief Payments To The Dead: Lawmakers Demand Answers From Treasury

Lawmakers are asking the Treasury Department and the IRS how many deceased people have received a coronavirus relief check from the government — and what the solution is.
Eric Gay
Lawmakers are asking the Treasury Department and the IRS how many deceased people have received a coronavirus relief check from the government — and what the solution is.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is demanding answers from the Treasury Department and the IRS about improper coronavirus relief checks paid out to deceased taxpayers.

Ten lawmakers, including a mix of Democratic and Republican U.S. senators and representatives, sent a letter to the agencies today asking how many deceased Americans received coronavirus relief payments and what steps the federal government is taking to recover the money.

"While it is essential that our constituents receive stimulus payments quickly, these improper payments to deceased individuals represent significant government waste and a burden to constituents who mistakenly accept the payments," the letter says.

The letter was in response to NPR's reporting on Wednesday about widespread reports of the $1,2000 stimulus checks showing up in the mailboxes and bank accounts of people who died as long as two years ago.

The letter was signed by: Sens. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del.; John Kennedy, R-La.; Gary C. Peters, D-Mich.; Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; Angus S. King Jr., I-Maine; and Jon Tester, D-Mont.; along with Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.; Greg Gianforte, R-Mont.; Bryan Steil, R-Wis.; and Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., D-Calif.

The members of Congress have introduced a bill that would enable other federal agencies to access the Social Security Administration's death records to prevent future improper payments to the deceased.

It's not the first time the dead have received government money during an economic crisis — a2010 Social Security Administration Inspector General's report found that the SSA sent tens of thousands of stimulus checks to the recently deceased and the incarcerated in 2009. The agency did not receive death data from states and failed to process its own death records. The IG estimates that about half of the payments have been returned.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said that the latest payments were in error and should be voluntarily returned, but the agency did not explain how to return payments until this week. Treasury has not responded to NPR's requests for comment, regarding how many deceased people may have received payments, or whether there is any penalty for not returning the checks. But the department told NPR on Wednesday that checks to the dead should be returned.

Following days of inquiries and the publication of NPR's report on Wednesday, the IRS released guidance on its website on how to return improper payments to the deceased.

The federal government has spent more than $200 billion on coronavirus relief payments.

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Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team. She helps with reporting, research, and production both on the team and in the network. She was the primary data reporter on Coal's Deadly Dust, a project investigating black lung disease's resurgence. The project won an Edward Murrow Award and NASEM Communications award, and was nominated for a George Foster Peabody award.