Sunday, February 07, 2021

Received a stimulus check intended for a deceased relative? Return it.

When the first round of stimulus checks for $1,200 went out to people in 2020, it was estimated that 1.1 million dead people received checks. That added up to around $1.4 billion. 

John Waggoner, a senior writer for AARP, posed the question, "My Dead Relative Received a Stimulus Check? Can We Keep It?" in an article he wrote for the organization's website. The Internal Revenue Service may have told people receiving checks in the name of dead people to return them, but the rules were unclear.

While the stimulus checks were clearly not intended for dead people, Waggoner points out that the "Treasury and the IRS didn't use death records to stop payments to dead people because the IRS did not think they had the authority to deny payments to those who filed a 2019 tax return, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO)." The CARES Act "required them to distribute the checks as quickly as possible."

As the rules at the time about keeping the money were being sorted out, some people were trying to decide if they should return the money if they didn't have to. Waggoner asked me what the ethical if not the legal thing to do was.

"Most if not all of those people who received a check intended for a dead relative know that it was an error," I told him. "The stimulus money was not intended to go to dead people. Ethically, the right thing would be to not cash the check."

I stand by that response. If we know we received something of value in error or that someone else received something of value and we stand to reap the benefits we should return that something.

Now, a new round of stimulus checks has gone out to eligible people. As Waggoner points out in an updated article on the topic, the Treasury and IRS corrected its original error. "The legislation that authorized the second stimulus payment to eligible recipients says that only recipients who died in 2019 or earlier must return the payments," Waggoner writes.

If a stimulus check to a dead relative is received in error, return it. Waggoner provides step-by-step instructions in his article about how to make such a return.

In the past, I've written about people taking food or clothing intended for those in need because there were no rules to keep them from doing so even when they clearly were not the items' intended beneficiaries. The temptation might exist to get a little something for yourself simply because you can, most of us know that there is little justification for doing so. The same goes for trying to keep stimulus checks intended for those who might have qualified for them while alive, but not so much after they've died.

The pandemic has taken a toll on most people in some form, but there are some who truly need more help than others. Yes, the federal government should have been more careful in issuing the checks. But the resources intended to support American citizens should not be wrongly kept by others simply because an error was made. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin. 


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