Treasury backs off requirement that Social Security recipients, others take extra step to get $1,200 checks

WASHINGTON – Facing stiff criticism, the Treasury Department abruptly changed course late Wednesday and announced that Social Security beneficiaries and other Americans who haven’t filed income taxes for the past two years won’t have to take any extra steps to receive one-time checks of up to $1,200 under a new economic recovery program.

“Social Security recipients who are not typically required to file a tax return need to take no action and will receive their payment directly to their bank account,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

Most Americans won’t have to do anything to receive a payment under the $2.2 trillion program designed to help the economy recover from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The checks will be sent automatically within the next three weeks to eligible Americans who filed tax returns in 2018 and 2019.

But the Internal Revenue Service posted a notice on its website earlier this week saying people who typically don’t file taxes would need to file a simple tax return to receive one of the payments. That would have included low-income taxpayers, senior citizens, Social Security recipients, some veterans and individuals with disabilities who are otherwise not required to file a tax return.

Wednesday’s announcement reverses that decision. Mnuchin said the IRS will now use Social Security data to generate payments to Social Security recipients who did not file tax returns in 2018 or 2019.  Recipients will receive these payments as a direct deposit or by paper check, just as they would normally receive their benefits, he said.

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The Treasury Department has the authority under the economic recovery program, which President Donald Trump signed into law last week, to ask the Social Security Administration and other agencies to supply the data it needs to process the checks. 

One of the reasons Treasury officials may have wanted to require a simple tax form from those who haven’t paid taxes in the past two years is to make sure they are sending checks to the most up-to-date address,” said Kyle Pomerleau, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank.

“Lots of people move, so this is a reasonable way to deal with it,” he said.

The downside, Pomerleau said, “is that you are shifting part of the burden on people by requiring them to do something to get their rebate.”

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The filing requirement raised objections from some lawmakers. Forty-one senators sent a letter Wednesday to Mnuchin arguing that the requirement would place “a significant burden” on retired seniors and people with disabilities.

“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,” the letter said.

The IRS said it is setting up a web-based portal at IRS.gov/coronavirus to provide more information on how to file a 2019 tax return and receive a payment.  

How your stimulus check is calculated

If you’ve already filed your 2019 taxes, the IRS will use those returns to determine your payment. If not, your 2018 returns will be used to calculate your check.

Individuals with an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less will be eligible for a one-time payment of up to $1,200 ($2,400 for joint tax returns) and $500 for each qualifying child. Those with little or no tax liability also will get $1,200 ($2,400 for joint returns).

The payments will start to phase out for Americans who earn more than $75,000, or $150,000 for a joint return. The amount you receive will be decreased by 5% of the amount your income exceeds $75,000. For example, a single person with an $85,000 salary would get $700 after subtracting 5% of $10,000, or $500.

The payments will phase out completely for single filers with incomes exceeding $99,000, $136,500 for head of household filers with one child, and $198,000 for joint filers with no children.

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How will the money be provided?

Americans who already have provided the IRS with their bank account information will receive the money as a direct deposit. Those who haven’t will receive a check in the mail, although experts warn the wait for physical checks could take longer than three weeks. Those who want a direct deposit but haven’t provided their bank account information can do so through the IRS’s new online portal.

While the web portal will make it easier to provide that information and get answers to other questions, “lack of web access – or a lack of knowledge even if one has the internet – is going to be a bigger challenge for low-income individuals,” said Garrett Watson, an economist at the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “The IRS should explore ways to get to those individuals outside of a digital platform.”

Tax preparation services – both commercial and non-profit – should be able to help individuals update their information if they don’t have web access, he said.

Meanwhile, online payment services such as Venmo have been in discussions with Treasury officials about helping to distribute the checks to consumers.

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Justin Higgs, spokesman for Venmo owner PayPal, confirmed that talks are underway but declined to provide more information.

Jodie Kelley, chief executive officer of the Electronic Transactions Association, said the industry has offered its assistance to Treasury “to quickly and securely deliver stimulus money to American consumers.”

“Electronic payments can deliver these funds far more quickly than the time it takes to print, mail and cash a check,” she said. “It’s also an important delivery method for the over 14 million Americans who do not have bank accounts, and thus do not have a ready way to cash a check.”

Watson said the IRS and Treasury will need to take steps to ensure taxpayer privacy is preserved in any partnership with online payment services.

Michael Collins covers the White House. Reach him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.

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