Is IRS Ignoring Congressional Directive To Make It Easy For Seniors To Get Stimulus Checks?

(Update: Treasury and IRS have changed course.)

“Please help me.

That was the message that I received over and over yesterday from seniors. 

Yesterday, I posted this story about a notice from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) purporting to explain the necessary steps for some folks to receive stimulus checks. The guidance included several sentences that seem contrary to the language in the CARES Act, including advice that “some seniors and others who typically do not file returns will need to submit a simple tax return to receive the stimulus payment.”

It’s confusing language because Congress has provided Treasury with a mechanism in the CARES Act for relying on forms 1099-SSA (or RRB equivalent) to issue checks. Relying on that language, I wrote about it – as did many others – and for a few days, the knowledge that they didn’t have to do anything further for benefits provided a sense of relief for seniors.

But that notice changed everything. Within minutes of posting my story, the emails started coming in.

  • “please advise me how i can obtain stimulus check once u find out more information.”
  • “I have no access to going outside and cannot ask any tax preparer since they’re not around.”
  • “…most of us seniors out here in social isolationland have no clue as to how to proceed, who to call or what we are supposed to do.”
  • “Please help!”
  • “This Coronavirus is Extremely stressful.”
  • “I’m a 100% disabled veteran. I receive benefits from the VA. I don’t pay taxes. What will I have to do to receive the stimulus check.”
  • “No church, No friends and Daily problems getting food.”
  • “Things are not so good for me presently.”
  • “… according to their response I can file a paper copy and mail it to the IRS. Which means I have to go out and find a paper copy as I don’t have a working printer at home. Then go to the post office and wait for who knows how many months for the paper work to be processed and then the check deposited in my bank account. “
  • “I have new heart, lung and kidney issues from this flu and I sure could use the help to pay for the ER visit and the ambulance ride.”
  • “I receive all of my income from Social Security and have nothing basically. I am very high risk for COVID 19 with a pre existing respiratory disease. Now if I want the stimulus money I have to go out and file it. I don’t have stamps. I don’t even have a printer so since I can’t file I am SOL unless I want to go risk my life.”

There were stories about seniors struggling with cancer. Stories about those who have been laid off. I heard from those on disability. And I heard from those who feel trapped by their current circumstances.

It was heartbreaking.

So I made calls. And I sent emails. I asked the IRS what they were doing to help. I asked many members of Congress about this, including Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and both Senators from my own state of Pennsylvania, Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA) and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA). I also reached out to the White House. 

I received only one response. One. Congresswoman Kendra Horn (D-OK), who had expressed concerned to constituents over this issue on her Facebook FB page, emailed me the following statement:

The IRS announcement that many seniors, disabled veterans, and social security beneficiaries will have to file a simplified tax return to receive their economic impact payments goes against the spirit and the intent of the law that we passed. The CARES Act is focused on delivering immediate help to Americans in need. That includes many Social Security and Veterans Administration beneficiaries who are not required to file taxes. Now the IRS has created unnecessary hurdles for those communities to receive help. I urge Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Social Security Administrator Saul to uphold the intent of the CARES Act by allowing vulnerable groups to receive their economic impact payments without additional action.

Shortly before this piece was to be published, I received a copy of a letter from some U.S. Senators directed to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Social Security Administration Commissioner Saul expressing alarm over this recent guidance. “This [IRS] 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,” wrote the Senators. “We strongly urge you to ensure that economic stimulus payments are automatically sent to vulnerable seniors and individuals who experience disabilities, without these individuals needing to file a tax return.”

You can read the full letter here.

The letter was signed by 41 Senators: Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Thomas R. Carper (D-DE), Michael F. Bennet (D-CO), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD), Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Doug Jones (D-AL), Jack Reed (D-RI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Gary C. Peters (D-MI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Tom Udall (D-NM), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Angus S. King, Jr. (I-ME), Tina Smith (D-MN), Christopher A. Coons (D-DE), Patty Murray (D-WA), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA).

Despite the noise, as of this writing, nothing has changed. Treasury has not issued a public statement, and the IRS has not responded to my request for comment.

If the guidance stands, seniors and those with disabilities who otherwise don’t have a filing requirement will be required to file something – no matter how simple – to collect a stimulus check, even though the law provides an alternative. If those folks can’t file or don’t receive the necessary information, they’ll miss out on funds they may be counting on at a time where they may not be able to rely on family, churches, friends, and charities.

That could be someone’s grandmother. It may be a vet who fought to keep you safe. It may be a former school teacher, counselor, or first responder. It could be your neighbor. It could be you.

If you’d like to make your voice heard, here’s how you can contact your elected officials:

I’ll continue to update you as information becomes available.

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