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Federal government sent nearly $1.4 billion in coronavirus stimulus payments to dead people

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The federal government sent more than 1 million coronavirus stimulus payments — totaling nearly $1.4 billion — to dead people in the first months of the pandemic, according to a government watchdog report released Thursday. The IRS says these payments must be returned, but it's not currently planning to notify more recipients on how to do so.

The finding comes in a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an independent investigative agency for Congress, which audited the nearly $3 trillion in coronavirus relief approved by Congress in March and April. The relief packages included direct payments of up to $1,200 for individuals, and $2,400 for couples, within certain income levels. 

By the end of May, the government had sent more than 160 million payments, totaling $269.3 billion. The report found that as of April 30, nearly 1.1 million of those payments went to people who were deceased.

According to the report, the mixup happened because the Treasury Department and its Bureau of the Fiscal Service — which distributed the payments — do not have full access to the death records maintained by the Social Security Administration and used by the IRS. 

Stimulus payments were also determined based on 2018 and 2019 tax returns, meaning Americans who died after filing those returns could have still been included.

"Treasury officials said that upon learning that payments had been made to decedents, Treasury and IRS, in consultation with counsel, determined that a person is not entitled to receive a payment if he or she is deceased as of the date the payment is to be paid," the report says. 

The IRS said in May that stimulus payments must be returned in full if they were sent to people who are dead or incarcerated. But the GOA report says the IRS "does not currently plan to take additional steps to notify ineligible recipients on how to return payments." 

It says the IRS "should consider cost effective options for notifying ineligible recipients on how to return payments; without which, ineligible recipients who would otherwise want to return the payments may be unaware how to do so."

The report comes as Congress debates whether to approve a second, and potentially larger, set of direct payments to Americans who took financial hits from the pandemic. The House approved a $3 trillion package that included another round of payments, and President Trump has shown support for it. But some Senate Republicans are reluctant to approve more direct payments.

The first waves of relief payments for individuals and businesses were marred by problems including delayed or lost checks, and by large public corporations claiming small business loans. The Trump administration is being sued for excluding some immigrants and their American spouses from payments.

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