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The IRS Sent Coronavirus Relief Payments To Dead People


In under a month, the IRS delivered more than 130 million coronavirus relief payments to Americans. That's $207 billion that was part of the relief package passed by Congress during the public health crisis. But the speed has come with some significant mistakes. NPR's Tim Mak has been talking to the families of dead Americans who got coronavirus relief checks.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Bob L'Hommedieu's father passed away in December. So Bob, who lives in Houston, notified the VA and the Social Security Administration that his father had passed in order to stop payments from them. And those were halted. But on April 15, Bob, who is a co-signer on his dad's account, noticed a payment in the amount of $1,200. It was a coronavirus relief payment from the IRS.

BOB L'HOMMEDIEU: I feel bad that this money is sitting in my dad's account, I don't know what to do with it, and there are people out there that need it badly. And that bothers me quite a bit. I wish I knew what to do with it, but I don't.

MAK: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said one week ago that any payments to the deceased would be a mistake and should be returned. But this has raised more questions than answers.

JANET HOLTZBLATT: There's mass confusion.

MAK: That's Janet Holtzblatt of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

HOLTZBLATT: There's been no official guidance as to how, in this instance, people should return the money that was received for their loved ones.

MAK: The IRS does not typically track information on the deceased in America. But other parts of the government, such as the Social Security Administration, do. It appears that there was no cross-referencing before checks went out. The scope of the problem could be in the millions. The CDC estimates that 2.8 million Americans died in 2018, for example. And there are signs that people who have died more than two years ago are receiving payments. Karen McClure of Fort Collins, Colo., experienced this firsthand. Her mother passed away in January of 2018. But in April of this year, she received a payment of $1,200.

KAREN MCCLURE: The government is being very reactive instead of proactive to this situation, which I find frustrating.

MAK: Mark Everson is a former IRS commissioner, serving from 2003 to 2007. He told NPR that the IRS has generally been doing a good job.


MARK EVERSON: But there's a real trade-off of speed versus accuracy in the processing.

MAK: He says that people in this situation should rely on official guidance.


EVERSON: People need to rely on the information they get from

MAK: But that's not so easy when it comes to this topic. Teresa Wilmot, a 71-year-old in Rockford, Ill., has been trying to do just that. She lost her partner of 39 years, Frank Dika, just two months ago. Last month, he received a payment.

TERESA WILMOT: I'm coping with Frank's death pretty well at this point. I'm not over it. I probably will never be over it. But it didn't - that part didn't bother me. I'm probably angrier at the government for sending out a payment to somebody who's deceased.

MAK: Teresa has been trying without success to find guidance online from the IRS to send the money back.

WILMOT: So I went online to the address on the letter and looked for a long time trying to find some way that I could first send the payment back. And I couldn't find that, so I looked for a way to contact somebody at the IRS or the U.S. Treasury or whatever to return the payment. And I couldn't find that.

MAK: NPR did not fare much better than Teresa. After multiple requests, the IRS directed questions to the Treasury Department. The Treasury Department pledged to have an answer by Tuesday morning. As of this airing, the Treasury Department has not answered questions about what steps the IRS is taking to address this problem or what to do if a deceased loved one receives a payment.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 5, 2020 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Frank Dajka's name as Dika.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.