Millions of Americans are currently receiving stimulus checks that are helping them get through the hard times brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, but a portion of Americans have gotten nothing because their spouse owes past-due child support on children from a previous marriage.
Dr. Karen Reece-Phiffer is the director of Program Research and Evaluation for the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development here in Madison where she has worked on issues of racial justice in the criminal justice system for many years. She is looking to bring attention to a glitch in the system that is keeping stimulus money out of the hands of people who need it dearly. Reece-Phiffer herself has filed “injured spouse” for the past six years so the child support office could not take her tax refund for her husband’s debt from before they were married.
“My husband has child support debt and in his particular situation he was incarcerated for a number of years. Child support continues to accrue while a person is incarcerated even though they don’t have earning potential,” Reece-Phiffer tells Madison365. “That makes it nearly impossible to ever get caught up so it’s basically something we know that we’re going to be dealing with forever.”
For many people with children who have been in prison for several years and not able to earn money, it means that they will have tens of thousands of dollars of debt when they come out.
“I file for ‘injured spouse’ every year and it can take up to 12 weeks for them to process all of that and for me to get the money I’m due back at the end of the year,” she says. “But in this case, it’s something that nobody thought about with the stimulus check. Every single kind of other debt, it was decided that there wouldn’t be any other off-sets because it’s supposed to be emergency funding right now … except for child support.”
Under the CARES Act, married couples who file joint tax returns and have a combined adjusted gross income of less than $150,000 are receiving $2,400. Parents are also getting an additional $500 for each qualifying child in their household. Also under the CARES Act, stimulus checks can be offset by unpaid child support.
But according to the IRS website, if you are married filing jointly and you filed an injured spouse claim with your 2019 tax return (or 2018 tax return if you haven’t filed your 2019 tax return), half of the total payment will be sent to each spouse and your spouse’s payment will be offset only for past-due child support. There is no need to file another injured spouse claim for the payment.
Madison365 reached out to the IRS in an email asking why numerous people who are “injured spouses” and normally protected for tax purposes are losing their entire COVID-19 stimulus checks and if/when the situation will be rectified. As of Thursday morning, there has not been a reply.
Carmella Glenn, coordinator of Madison-area Urban Ministry’s Just Bakery program, was eagerly awaiting her COVID-19 stimulus check and was frustrated when she had it all taken away from her.
“My husband had been incarcerated when he was younger in 1994. He had a child and racked up back child support. In 2006, when we had a newborn baby, he was revocated for marijuana possession. Child support doesn’t stop here in Wisconsin. He got back child support,” Glenn tells Madison365. “So when we were married in 2011, the first year we filed taxes jointly, I was like ‘where’s my tax refund?’ I got a crash course in injured spouse.”
Wisconsin is a “community property” state and Glenn says she usually always gets 50 percent tax refund back since that first year. But for some reason, that “injured spouse” filing is not transferring over to this current COVID-19 stimulus check.
“They ended up taking what is credited to my children, too, which is crazy. The tax intercept line says that all of my money will be taken for child support,” Glenn says. “Our return would have been $1,200 for me, $1,200 for my husband and $500 for our son. But it has two deposits – $1450 and $1450 – both being offset for child support.
“It’s really frustrating and irritating. Why is my $500 for my kid being taken to be put towards his debt? Why is any of my income being taken? They don’t do that in any other situation where they would ever do that,” she adds.
Glenn has been talking with other people from around the country who are in a similar situation in a Facebook group for filing status of injured spouses, one of many groups concerned about this issue on social media. The one she is in has about 7,000 members who keep each other informed of what their status is in the IRS system or to find out more information on filing injured spouse forms.
“People started to get their stimulus checks in the group … some did,” Glenn says, “but more like 95 percent of the people in the group didn’t. They didn’t get anything.
“We all had filed ‘injured spouse,’ so we thought there was a glitch in the group,” she adds. “So we’ve been sitting and waiting for them to figure this out why suddenly there’s this glitch when there never is on our taxes every year.”
Reece-Phiffer, who has also joined that particular Facebook group, says the problem is that people think of child support all in one lump and don’t recognize that there are all kinds of circumstances that lead to people to owe money, sometimes massive amounts.
“The general narrative is that if somebody owes that child support, they’re a deadbeat parent. And that’s not often the case,” she says. “Even for a person who finds himself unemployed or underemployed, that doesn’t stop their child support payments. If they are unemployed for a month, they are responsible for that payment, plus interest and plus fees.
“That’s where it really starts to get complicated because then the money is not necessarily going to the parent or the children, it’s going to support fees and interest on top of that,” Reece-Phiffer adds. “That’s the thing that bothers me the most about this stimulus interception is that the money is not going directly to the parents and children; the money for the offset is going to child support agencies where it will sit for a period of time before it’s decided where it should go.”
So during a national emergency, Reece says, the money is not immediately benefitting anyone. Once stimulus money is intercepted, it could take some time for a parent to receive the support payment. If a couple files a joint tax return, it could take up to six months for the payment to reach the parent who receives child support.
Reece-Phiffer notes that it is part of a larger, systematic problem and that it will disproportionately affect the people who need it most.
“We can argue about the child support issues – whether or not a person should get it – but when we’re talking about emergency money, it’s the people who are already having a hard time keeping up with payments who are working low-wage jobs or who may be unemployed at this time who are going to have a hard time buying food and paying rent,” she says. “That’s who the stimulus money is for.
“Of course it’s not fair for a parent to be raising a child by themselves while the other parent is incarcerated, but we have to figure out what is realistic and, ultimately, does the other parent have a chance to get back in that child’s life and someday be supportive? Sometimes we get stuck in the here and now and we don’t look at the big picture and what it looks like 10-20 years down the road and how do we make sure that we are all OK,” she adds.
Glenn, along with the thousands of people in the Injured Spouses Facebook group, were hoping that the IRS would pick up on the “injured spouse” filing that they had always had made on their taxes and everything would work out the same with the current COVID-19 stimulus money.
For many, it didn’t happen.
The IRS, Glenn says, is telling her to sit back and wait. “I’ve written to [United States Sen.] Tammy Baldwin about it. I hope that she takes a look at it. I don’t know who else to deal with,” Glenn says. “We have tweeted this information out and done social media and its starting to get some press.”
Numerous petitions, like this one, have been started to bring attention to the situation and justice for injured spouses.
“When I file my injured spouse, my whole refund gets taken and then there’s a waiting period. I have people in my group that filed their taxes in January and are still waiting. It can take up to 5 or 6 months for us to get our tax money back from injured spouse,” she says. “Six months in a pandemic with people who are really struggling? That is pretty ridiculous. That money was supposed to help stimulate things.
“That $1,200 was supposed to be mine – end of story,” she adds.