In April, Congress voted to send billions of dollars to Americans to help alleviate the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic. The Treasury Department sent stimulus checks directly to individuals according to their most recent tax returns, but the agency didn't cross-reference that information with another data point: death records. A new report from the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog, says that as a result, the Trump administration sent more than $1 billion in stimulus money to dead people.
A paragraph detailing the efficacy and shortcomings of the CARES Act economic impact payments reads, "The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Treasury moved quickly to disburse 160.4 million payments worth $269.3 billion." In the process of moving "quickly," the agency faced "difficulties" delivering some payments, the GAO report says. Specifically, it continues, by April 30, "almost 1.1 million payments totaling nearly $1.4 billion had gone to" people who were no longer alive.
The CARES Act, which had a $2 trillion price tag, stipulated that the federal government would send eligible Americans checks of up to $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for couples, up to a certain income threshold. The checks weren't disbursed to everyone, though — some citizens married to immigrants were conspicuously left out — and critics noted that a one-time deposit wouldn't be substantial enough given how many millions of people lost work due to coronavirus.
Meanwhile, $1.4 billion was given to people with no use for it. What happened, the report explained, was a matter of intra-agency miscommunication.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) keeps death records of everyone who receives Social Security payments. In April, when the news of checks going to deceased individuals first came out, Mic explained that, "The SSA ... typically receives around 2.5 million death notices per year, which arrive from state governments, financial institutions, and even funeral homes. There can be a gap between when someone actually dies and how long it takes for their death to make its way through the system, though."
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), meanwhile, is responsible for processing the tax returns used to determine CARES Act eligibility. The IRS has access to SSA records, but the Treasury Department, which was responsible for actually cutting the checks, does not.
If in the future Congress agrees on another round of payments, the GAO "recommends that Congress provide Treasury with access to the Social Security Administration’s full set of death records, and require that Treasury consistently use it, to help reduce similar types of improper payments." The Democrat-controlled House has already approved another relief package, though the Republican majority in the Senate has not.
The report further says that the IRS did not have the "legal authority" to deny payments to any individual for whom there is a 2019 tax return, "even if they were deceased at the time of payment." But what's less clear is what happened to the money after it was paid to dead people, and whether going forward the government is legally allowed to request or demand that the CARES Act money be returned. The equivocation contradicts Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's comments in April vowing to "retrieve" the erroneous payments and President Trump's echoes to "get [the checks] back."