What Quarantine and the Stimulus Check Mean for Your Taxes

The filing deadline has been extended to July 15th, but several questions remain

Today is April 15th, the date usually thought of as "Tax Day."

In a normal year this would mark the deadline for filing your 2019 tax returns, but 2020 is anything but a normal year. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting quarantine, the deadline for filing taxes has been extended to July 15th.

The hope is that by mid-summer most ordinary business will be allowed to resume so that individuals and companies will be able to prepare their paperwork, and tax preparation services will be back to their usual operation—or will have made necessary adjustments to do their work safely. With record unemployment and the sudden spike in medical expenses, the delay should also make things easier for people who are struggling to manage their rapidly shifting finances.

It remains to be seen if all these hopes will pan out, but in the meantime there are a number of other factors that deserve to be addressed. In particular, the relationship between stimulus checks currently being rolled out and taxes has become particularly fraught and confusing. Sources have variously claimed that the checks—maxing out at $1,200 per adult, with an additional $500 for dependents—will be counted toward recipients' 2020 taxable income, or that they function as advances on a future tax return, and will thus eat into or eliminate the amount people can expect to receive from the IRS later this year.

Fortunately, both of these assertions are false. However much you receive in your check—or deposited directly into your account—it will not affect your income for tax purposes, nor will it have any impact on the amount you receive in your refund. That said, that extra money may not be as miraculous as many people are hoping. While the first payments are arriving in people's accounts as we speak, others will see those badly-needed funds delayed for up to five months, and many will not receive as much as they should rightly expect.

People whose are set up to receive direct deposits from the IRS or the Social Security Administration will get their payments quickly, but for those of us waiting on a check in the mail, the first round won't arrive until sometime in May. The issue is that the IRS has a physical limit on the number of checks they can print and ship out—with the added delay of Donald Trump's all-important signature—and with so many people scheduled to receive stimulus money, that capacity becomes a serious drag on the process.

The other major issue is with the way the amounts are calculated. Individuals with incomes over $75,000 will receive smaller amounts, while the threshold is set at $112,500 for the head of a household and $150,000 for joint filers. Every $100 of income over the threshold will reduce your check by $5—so an individual with an income of $80,000 should receive $950 ($250 less than someone who earned $75,000), and an individual with an income of $99,000 won't receive any stimulus money at all.

The real problem arises from the fact that the income used for these calculations is based on the most recent tax return you filed. So people who earned a lot more in 2019 than they did in 2018 would benefit if they haven't filed yet (although any refund they're entitled to will obviously be delayed), while people whose income dropped in 2019 will receive more stimulus money if they chose to file early. On top of that mess, some may see their checks go straight to debt collectors.

It will take months before we have real a sense of how much the stimulus money and the delay of tax season have actually helped people, but the least we can do in the meantime is try to reduce the noise and confusion around these issues.

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