As more and more people receive their Economic Impact Payments (EIPs) over the next few weeks, the number of previously unforeseen issues with EIPs will surely rise commensurately. One that recently was brought to my attention is the issue of offsetting a joint EIP for back-child support when only one spouse actually owes the debt (recall that child support is arguably (see Bob Probasco’s post here) the only offset that can occur with EIPs).
For a normal tax refund being issued under normal circumstances, this unfairness would be solved by filing Form 8379 -Injured Spouse Allocation. But it goes without saying that EIPs are not normal refunds being issued under normal circumstances. Assuming injured spouse allocation is still the mechanism to use, two complicating factors come immediately to my mind: (1) when/how to fill out and submit the the Form 8379, and (2) how quickly one could anticipate any such form actually being processed by the IRS at this point. My thoughts (aided by the input of others) below.
The case that was brought to my attention involved a joint 2019 tax return with two qualifying children (under 17). Since the taxpayers were under the AGI thresholds the EIP was $3400. All of this money went (I believe) to the husband’s back-due child support. The wife got nothing, though she owed no debts subject to offset. When they went to the county to ask for the portion of the refund attributable to her the county said, “file Injured Spouse Relief with the IRS.” And that’s where things stand.
Obviously the whole point of the EIP is to get money in pockets as quickly as possible. So filing an injured spouse form after the fact (and especially with IRS staffing issues) is concerning. But can you file an anticipatory injured spouse claim for your EIP? Highly doubtful, both as a matter of practicality (most checks are being sent imminently so it would be hard to send the Form 8379 first) and of mechanics (should you send the Form 8379 with your tax return and how would you fill it out so that it is properly processed?)
Very interestingly, the taxpayers I referenced above DID file a Form 8379 with their 2019 tax return but obviously not in anticipation of the EIP (since that couldn’t be on the return to begin with). And still the EIP was offset. Accordingly, I don’t see much in the way of proactive measures taxpayers or practitioners can take to avoid this outcome with present IRS practices. Short of filing separate returns, which is useless if you’ve already filed joint (and wouldn’t reasonably be fixed by filing a superseding return, since that return would need to be filed by paper), there doesn’t appear to be anything you can do. This calls for a systemic fix.
Until and unless that systemic fix is made, however, we are stuck reacting to the offsets. And how should practitioners react? Two ideas come to mind, and I’d ask the community to weigh in.
The first is to simply follow the advice of the county and to file Form 8379. Still, issues abound with how to actually fill it out -particularly since the first question on that form is “what year does this pertain to” and the last seven questions ask for tax data from that year. If the year is 2020, you have no tax data because it is an open year. I suppose you could just put “0” for everything except the “credits” (line 17) or “payments” (line 20) section, where you’d put in the full EIP. I question whether the IRS would process such an request.
My initial thought is that it should be listed as tax year 2019 (or 2018, if you didn’t file 2019) since the language of the ADVANCED credit specifically provides “each individual who was an eligible individual for such individual’s first taxable year beginning in 2019 shall be treated as having made a payment against the tax imposed by chapter 1 for such taxable year in an amount equal to the advance refund amount for such taxable year.” IRC 6428(f)(1) [emphasis added]. But most in the tax community (with a notable exception or two) have disagreed with me, taking the position that 2018/2019 are really just used for calculating the advanced credit.
I still have my reservations based on the statutory language, but I will concede the point for other reasons… Namely that my local taxpayer advocate has informed me that the EIP posts in the IRS records as a 2020 tax module payment (i.e. on the 2020 account). That says to me “treat it as a 2020 tax return item.” Right now we are living in the IRS’s world and are just trying to expeditiously get payments to those in need: whatever the IRS computers say is so, I’ll agree with if it speeds things up. At least until this is over, at which point I’ll probably litigate if I think it is wrong and is hurting my client.
My second (and parting) thought on the subject is one that I would definitely appreciate input on: whether one could work with the county that takes the payment, rather than the IRS. Again, absent a systemic fix I have serious doubts about how quickly the IRS can resolve this even if they give guidance on how to fill out Form 8379. I think the county taking the payment could be much more responsive, though I pretty much never work with counties on child support issues, and have no idea what constraints they face. Those that do, I’d appreciate input: is there a way to convince the counties that these payments are “special,” and that half should go to the non-liable party? Or is the IRS the only voice that can say that? Is it too late because the payment is disbursed to the child support recipient, and the county would have to claw it back? So much that I am presently ignorant of…
Looking forward to the thoughts on the matter. And many thanks to the tax community for how responsive they have been on so many of these issues already.