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Can I get a stimulus check if I owe child support?


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When you get your stimulus check and how much you get depend on several factors.

USA TODAY

If you’re behind on child support, you either won’t get a stimulus check or will receive a reduced one.

The reason? While the CARES Act suspends debts like overdue student loans or back taxes that typically lead to the garnishment of tax refunds, it doesn’t apply to delinquent child support payments. That means the government’s relief checks will still be garnished if you’re overdue. And some spouses who are filing joint tax returns with their late-paying partners are upset their stimulus money is being trimmed or withheld, even if they typically qualify for relief in situations like tax refunds.

Even if your spouse is solely responsible for the debt, a shared tax refund or stimulus check could be at risk. 

“If someone does owe back child support and they’re due a stimulus payment, they will offset that check for the amount that you owe,” says Christina Taylor, head of operations at Credit Karma Tax. It’s a way to ensure that people who need relief the most, like a lower-income person with children, is able to get it, she says.

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Here’s how the garnishment of your stimulus check, which was designed to give Americans a quick cash infusion during the coronavirus pandemic, could play out.

The checks are calculated based on either 2018 or 2019 tax returns, whichever one was filed most recently.

Normally if you filed taxes jointly with a spouse who owes back child support that would be taken out of a tax rebate, you could apply for injured spouse relief. 

You would include the form when filing joint tax returns. If you qualified, you could receive a share of a refund or stimulus check rather than having the entire amount go toward late child support payments.

That’s how the IRS calculated stimulus checks in the past. In the global financial crisis in 2008, the IRS allowed those who had filed injured spouse relief forms with their tax returns to receive stimulus relief. 

But it’s different this time.

Danielle Saxton, who has an 11-year-old son, typically files for injured spouse relief every tax season to get her portion of a tax refund.

The 37-year-old, who lives in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, said she called the Treasury Department’s Offset Program hotline and was informed her stimulus check had been withheld even though she didn’t owe any debt. 

That’s created more financial stress since she’s lost income from not being able to clean homes because of social distancing measures from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Her husband owes roughly $7,000 in back child support for two children from a previous marriage. His wages have been garnished by about $278 per paycheck for current and past due amounts, she says.

“Owing child support comes with a stigma,” adds Saxton, who was expecting a $2,900 stimulus payment that would include herself, her husband and her child. “People automatically assume you’re just someone that doesn’t want to take care of your kids. That’s not true for my husband. He’s never run from his responsibilities. He just fell on hard times financially.”

The IRS didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Why doesn’t injured spouse relief apply?

One possible reason, experts say, is the IRS hasn’t issued guidance yet on injured spouse relief, according to Lisa Greene-Lewis, a certified public accountant at TurboTax. 

The IRS typically works with the Office of Child Support Enforcement so the agency is aware of who has fallen behind on child support payments. It’s possible the IRS is still awaiting guidance from OCSE on how to handle injured spouse relief, Greene-Lewis says.

“We just haven’t seen that type of guidance on injured spouse relief this time around for the stimulus checks,” Greene-Lewis says. 

The Administration for Families and Children, which oversees the Office of Child Support Enforcement, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Shanna Kidwell, a 34-year-old mother in Tiffin, Ohio, says her family’s $4,400 stimulus payment, which includes $500 for each of her four children, was withheld by the IRS because her husband owes about $45,000 in back child support for two children from previous relationships. 

Before the stimulus checks, the government took about $300 from his biweekly paycheck for child support. Now, his stimulus check and tax refund will also be garnished.

“That stimulus could have helped us get caught up on bills,” says Kidwell, who recently had surgery. “The government needs to quit punishing families of the person that owes a debt. My kids have nothing to do with this, and it’s unfair they’re paying for it.” 

Does the stimulus money go to the ex?

The stimulus payment that is reduced or withheld by the child support owed will go to the appropriate collecting office for the taxpayer’s state, Taylor says. From there, that collecting office will issue the money to the custodial parent, the person due the child support. The time it takes for the money to arrive may vary by collecting office, which varies by state.

If you’re behind on child support, does it affect unemployment?

Another concern for Americans facing massive numbers of layoffs is whether late child support payments are taken from unemployment checks.

The answer is yes.

If you’re claiming unemployment and a child support order is in place, you can have child support payments withheld. 

Some states will limit back child support collection to 50% of each check so that the person who owes child support would still collect unemployment, while other states may garnish differently for back child support. 

Experts advise anyone in this situation to check their state’s laws around unemployment benefit garnishing. 

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