Stimulating Confusion

MarketWatch

As millions of taxpayers await checks, others find themselves with two

Even as millions of people are anxiously checking their mailboxes and bank accounts for their stimulus payments, others have received more than their fair share.

One taxpayer, a technical writer in Chicago who preferred not to give her name, said she'd already deposited her $600 stimulus payment when a second check arrived in the mail, also marked "stimulus payment" and also for $600.

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The IRS said in May that about 1,500 payments were sent to the wrong accounts. In an unscientific survey of a handful of tax preparers nationwide, MarketWatch found just one who said a client had received two payments by mistake.

Through June 6, the U.S. Treasury had sent 66.6 million payments totaling about $56.8 billion. Altogether, an estimated 130 million payments will be made this year.

Barbara Steinmetz, a certified financial planner and enrolled agent with Steinmetz Financial Planning in San Mateo, Calif., told her client not to cash the second check. (Enrolled agents are tax preparers who are licensed to represent taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service.)

"Don't cash it and hope [the IRS] won't catch it. They have some very sophisticated matching programs," Steinmetz said. "They are capable of tracking it if you got more than one. Don't think it's a windfall."

The IRS agreed. "If a taxpayer receives more than one stimulus payment the erroneous additional payment should be returned to the IRS," the tax agency said in an emailed statement.

If the erroneous payment was a paper check, write "void" in the endorsement section on the back of the check, and attach a note that says you are returning an "erroneous stimulus payment check," the IRS said.

Mail the check and the note to the IRS center where you filed your tax return. If you filed electronically or had a tax professional prepare your return, then go to the IRS Web site and look up the address where individuals in your state normally should mail returns.

As long as you mark the check void, you should avoid any problems, said Bob Scharin, a New York-based senior tax analyst with RIA, a tax-publication unit of Thomson Reuters. "If you mail the check back and you marked it void, and it gets lost in the mail -- then the check would not get cashed," he said, and the taxpayer would be in the clear.

If the IRS directly deposited an erroneous payment into your bank account, then tell your bank. "The bank or financial institution will know the proper procedures for returning the money," the IRS said in the statement.

Some to Get Extra Payments

For some taxpayers, a second stimulus payment will not be a mistake: The IRS will be mailing out about 350,000 additional checks starting in July to taxpayers whose original stimulus payment did not include a payment for their eligible child.

"In some instances, taxpayers did not check the proper box to trigger the $300 child payment. In other instances, a few tax software products primarily used by tax professionals did not capture the proper information needed for issuing the child stimulus payment," the tax agency said.

"To fix the problem, the IRS is taking extra steps to identify the affected taxpayers and send them separate checks to cover their qualifying children. The IRS emphasized that the corrected checks will be mailed automatically, and taxpayers don't need to call or take any additional steps," the statement said.

Still Waiting for a Check?

Meanwhile, if you're still waiting for your payment, your best bet is to be patient. Given the millions of payments being sent, and the small percentage sent to the wrong accounts, it's unlikely your check went to the wrong address.

Much likelier is that you expected a quick direct-deposit of your payment, when in fact it's being mailed as a paper check.

That's the case for any taxpayer who opted for a split refund. That is, if you chose to have your regular tax refund deposited directly into two or more accounts, the IRS will not directly deposit your stimulus payment but will mail it instead.

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For instance, if you opted to have your tax-preparation fee paid out of your refund, that's counted as a split refund -- and that means the IRS will mail your stimulus payment as a paper check, even if your regular refund was deposited directly into your account.

Still, people are impatient, and retailers' advertisements aren't helping, said Cynthia Jeanguenat, an enrolled agent in Virginia Beach, Va.

"The public perception is that 'my check should be here,'" she said. "Bring your check to Wal-Mart, bring your check to the grocery store, we're all going to give you this money. However, the paper checks weren't going to go out until after May 16, after the direct deposits" and the mailing is still happening, she said.

The IRS will continue mailing checks through mid-July.

And there are other reasons why a payment might be delayed. "I have a client who wasn't thinking, I guess, and who closed the bank account for her direct deposit," Steinmetz said, adding that the IRS will likely mail her payment in late July.

Also, keep in mind that if your payment is less than you're entitled to, you can collect on your 2008 return.

"The 2008 return may offer a chance to correct a deficiency in any rebate checks received," said Mark Luscombe, a principal analyst with CCH Inc., a Riverwoods, Ill., tax publisher, in an email.

"If, on their 2008 return, the new credit to which they are entitled is larger than the economic stimulus payment that they have already received, they will be entitled to the difference as an additional credit on their 2008 tax return," he said.

However, the stimulus payments will not increase taxpayers' tax bill next year, the IRS said. See the IRS' frequently asked questions page.

Andrea Coombes is an assistant personal finance editor for MarketWatch, based in San Francisco.

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