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Domestic Abusers Controlling Virus Relief Checks Raise Red Flags

June 25, 2020, 9:45 AM

Many domestic violence survivors who recently separated from their abusers likely never saw a dime of coronavirus relief money the government has been sending—a problem that advocates are pushing the IRS to rectify as Congress contemplates a second batch of payments.

The relief law (Public Law 116-136), known as the CARES Act, tasked the IRS with delivering millions of one-time direct payments to U.S. households, worth up to $1,200 for individuals—$2,400 for married couples—plus an extra $500 for each dependent child under the age of 17. Lawmakers and administration officials are now considering another round of the payments, as part of another stimulus package.

The talk of more direct payments is bringing into focus groups who may have missed out on the first round. Tax clinics and legal aid organizations have heard from domestic violence survivors whose abusive spouses withheld their share of the payments. Without that money, survivors may feel trapped or forced to return to their abusive partners to stay afloat during a pandemic that may have already cost them their jobs.

There were very few options, under the first round of payments, for survivors of domestic violence to ensure they got their portion of that aid, as opposed to their abusers, said Monica McLaughlin, director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

That’s a huge problem because “this little cash from the federal government could be the thing that really jumpstarts your freedom,” she said. For some in abusive relationships, the $1,200 could enable them to afford rent, car repairs, or other necessities that could help them financially separate from their abusers.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says virtually all domestic violence survivors experience economic abuse during an abusive relationship, and finances are often cited as the biggest barrier to leaving the relationship.

The stimulus money is also critical for domestic abuse survivors with other resources dwindling, such access to shelters and organizations that have closed or limited services due to the pandemic, McLaughlin said.

Hill Pressure

Dozens of Democratic senators, led by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), asked the IRS and Treasury in a June 19 letter to take steps to ensure abuse survivors can access their share of Covid-19 aid.

“In the midst of this economic crisis, it’s critically important that victims receive their Economic Impact Payments,” said one of the letter’s signers, Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). His office said in an email that abusers often aim to assert financial control to limit the options of survivors.

Treasury and the IRS are working on possible ways to ensure domestic violence survivors and their dependents receive the payments in a way that takes into account their specific needs, without sacrificing speed, a Treasury spokesperson said.

Lack of Safe Options

Frequently, the payment issue arises when a husband and wife filed a joint return listing the husband—also the abuser—as the primary, said Nancy Rossner, a senior attorney at the Community Tax Law Project in Richmond, Va.

The IRS then uses that return to not only issue refunds but the new coronavirus relief payment directly into the husband’s account, making it near impossible for the wife to access her share even if she’s since left her abuser and is seeking or has been granted a divorce, Rossner said Monday on a webcast hosted by the American Bar Association.

“It’s definitely a huge problem and it’s one that I know a lot of others are experiencing at legal aids and clinics” across the country, she said.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that domestic abuse survivors have fewer safe options for resolving the issue than other individuals who may have seen their payments misappropriated, Rossner said. Some individuals might be able to go to small claims court but that’s less likely to be an option for abuse survivors.

It might be dangerous, for example, for them to communicate with their abuser and they may fear retaliation if they take that person to court, Rossner said.

“The relief check issue is an example of kind of how batterers have exploited society’s response to the pandemic to further their own abuse of their survivors,” said Andrew King-Ries, chair of the ABA Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

The ABA in a May letter to the IRS acknowledged that domestic violence survivors are a vulnerable population requiring the agency’s assistance. The association asked the IRS to provide guidance for survivors on filing a superseding tax return for 2019 and to search its system for indicators identifying potential individuals in domestic abuse situations before issuing Covid-19 relief payments.

Additionally, the IRS should follow Form 8888, which allows a person to split a refund associated with a joint return between two bank accounts, when distributing the payments. By not honoring that form, the IRS may be forcing domestic violence survivors with account information listed second on a joint return to go to court to demand their share of relief payments from abusive ex-spouses, the ABA said.

‘Getting it Right’

The Democratic senators also recommended specific ways the IRS could help domestic abuse survivors access their stimulus money.

These include dedicating a telephone line for survivors to call and report a change of address or misdirected rebate; adding guidance to the IRS website to inform individuals of the steps they should take if they filed a joint return for 2018 or 2019 but have since left their spouse; and creating a new form that people can use to report instances in which their relief money was deposited into an account to which they don’t have access.

The lawmakers’ requests were based on recommendations submitted to congressional offices by the National Network to End Domestic Violence working together with The Community Tax Law Project, Rossner said.

NNEDV, according to McLaughlin, is focused on “getting it right” the second time around if Congress approves more direct payments since it will be difficult for survivors to recoup money that’s already been distributed.

The first rollout was not survivor inclusive, she said. “We’re very hopeful that the next set of checks, if we get them, will address that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Allyson Versprille in Washington at aversprille@bloombergtax.com; Kaustuv Basu in Washington at kbasu@bloombergtax.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Patrick Ambrosio at pambrosio@bloombergtax.com; Colleen Murphy at cmurphy@bloombergtax.com

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