CARES Act Stimulus Relief for Incarcerated Recipients


On September 24, 2020, Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued an Order certifying a nationwide class of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, and granting the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction requiring the U.S. Department of Treasury, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and the United States of America to stop withholding CARES Act stimulus funds from plaintiffs or any class member on the sole basis of their incarcerated status.

On October 14, 2020, Chief Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton of the Northern District of California granted in part the Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment against the Internal Revenue Service, Department of the Treasury, Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig. Read a copy of the Judge’s Order.

The Court’s holding converts the preliminary injunction entered on September 24, 2020 into a permanent injunction. As a result, the IRS is required to stop denying stimulus relief to people who are incarcerated solely for that reason, to re-issue payments that were previously retracted from incarcerated people by October 24, 2020, and to re-consider any claim for a refund check that was previously denied by the same date. The government will be required to file a declaration by November 9, 2020 confirming its compliance and including data about the number and amount of stimulus relief disbursed as a result of the order.

On October 15, 2020, the U.S. District Court ordered the IRS to apply an extension of the filing deadline for paper claims to November 4, 2020 so that it would also apply to the claims of the incarcerated in the U.S. The Court thus extended the deadline for postmarked paper claims to November 4, 2020.

The Court also ordered the IRS to immediately correct misinformation on its website, issue accurate and updated guidance to its own employees on claimant eligibility, alert prison officials to the new extensions and other policy rulings, and send direct notice to incarcerated people about this now-expanded claims process.

On October 5, 2020, the IRS announced it was extending the deadline for filing online claims to November 21, 2020.

Please note that the IRS has not agreed to approve electronic claims submitted by loved ones and third parties for people currently incarcerated. Please continue to check this web page for further updates.

The Judge’s preliminary injunction further ordered the defendants to reconsider their prior denial of advance refund payments to any person based on incarcerated status within 30 days, whether the denial was based on a 2018 or 2019 tax return, or on claims filed through the IRS’s online “Non-Filer” portal.

Earlier, on August 1, 2020, Lieff Cabraser and the Equal Justice Society filed a groundbreaking lawsuit against the United States Department of the Treasury and Internal Revenue Service on behalf of a nationwide class of people who were incarcerated at any time from March 27, 2020 to the present—that is, people serving a sentence in state or federal prison. The lawsuit seeks to have a court order the Defendants to issue CARES Act stimulus relief to all eligible incarcerated people, or up to $1,200 per eligible person plus $500 per qualifying child.

Read the Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers) relating to this decision, including whether and how to make a claim.

Note: This case also benefits people who were incarcerated both before and after March 27, 2020. If they were incarcerated both prior to March 27 and at least some time afterward, then the IRS may have denied them an Economic Impact Payment based on their incarcerated status. The Court’s preliminary injunction establishes that the IRS should not have done that. If they were only incarcerated before March 27, then they were unaffected by the IRS’s policy of denying benefits to incarcerated people, and should a have received a stimulus check. If they have not, they can file the same steps below to file a claim with the IRS, if eligible.

Frequently Asked Questions About CARES Act Relief for Incarcerated People

Please be aware that the deadline and the entire process for how to get CARES Act relief funds was set by the government. The Equal Justice Society and Lieff Cabraser’s role was bringing a lawsuit to ensure that the government didn’t prevent incarcerated people and their families from participating in a benefit intended for all Americans.

1. What are the benefits available?

Eligible individuals can receive up to $1,200 per person, or $2,400 for married couples filing jointly, plus $500 per qualifying child. Your benefit is reduced by 5% of any income you earned in a qualifying tax year above $150,000 if you filed a joint return, $112,500 if you are the head of a household, or $75,000 otherwise.

2. How do I know if my children qualify as dependents for purposes of the claim form?

According to the IRS, your children only qualify for a payment if they were age 16 or younger on December 31, 2019, and if they lived with you for more than half of 2019.

3. Does it cost anything to file a claim with the IRS?

No. And the lawyers who brought the lawsuit are not asking for or taking any money from class members or their families.

4. Am I eligible?

You are eligible to file a claim if you satisfy all of the following requirements:

  • You are a U.S. Citizen or Legal Permanent Resident
  • You are not married to someone who lacks a social security number, or have a child who lacks one, UNLESS you or your spouse served in the Armed Forces in 2019
  • You filed a tax return in 2018 or 2019 or you were exempt from doing so because your income in 2019 was below $12,200 a year or, if married and filing jointly, below $24,400
  • You were not claimed as a dependent on another person’s tax return

5. What if I entered prison before ever holding a paid job or filing any tax documents on the outside – am I still eligible?

Yes, so long as you meet the other general eligibility requirements listed above in Question 4.

6. If I am on parole, supervised release, released from all restrictions, and/or my record has been expunged, can I make a claim?

Yes. If you meet the other requirements set forth in Questions 4 and 5 above.

7. My loved one is incarcerated and has authorized me to file a claim – is that ok?

Update 10/10/20:  We are aware that IRS representatives have been giving conflicting information in response to this question. It has been reported widely that an IRS official advised California correctional authorities (CDCR) that families may file online for their loved ones inside. IRS separately advised counsel that it believes that all claims should be filed by claimants themselves, but despite our requests for clarification IRS has not disagreed that it told CDCR to encourage online filings. We think the IRS is making this unnecessarily confusing, and we will of course update this information if/when we are able. We recommend the use of paper claims, signed by the claimant, as the safest course of action where possible.

Prior:  So far, the IRS has rejected our requests to permit friends, family, or lawyers from signing claim forms for incarcerated people, even with documented power of attorney. We do not agree with this position, and think it is unfair and extremely burdensome. We will keep trying to make progress on this request, but in the meantime, please assume that claims must be signed and/or filed by the claimants themselves.

8. What is the filing deadline?

The IRS has set a deadline of November 4, 2020 to file a paper claim.  This means that claims must be postmarked by November 4.  If you have access to a computer, you may file electronically (online) on or by November 21.  Please see Question #9 below for more claims filing instructions.

9. How do I file a claim?

If you filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return or receive Social Security Benefits or Railroad Retirement Board Benefits, you do not need to file a claim. However, if you did not file a 2018 or 2019 tax return and your income was below $12,200 (or $24,400 if filing jointly) in 2019, then you should file an online claim through the IRS’s website.

NOTE that if you file online, the IRS requires that you answer line 9 of the form, in addition to other required lines. (An answer to line 9 is not required for paper submissions.)

10. Can I file a claim if I do not have a computer?

If you cannot file a claim online, then you may file a claim on paper and through the mail by following the instructions here.

10a. Where do I mail my completed form?

The address will vary depending on where you live. See the chart below.

If you live in...And you ARE NOT enclosing a payment use this address
Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, VirginiaDepartment of the Treasury
Internal Revenue Service
Kansas City, MO 64999-0002
Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, WyomingDepartment of the Treasury
Internal Revenue Service
Ogden, UT 84201-0002
Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, TexasDepartment of the Treasury
Internal Revenue Service
Austin, TX 73301-0002
Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Washington, WisconsinDepartment of the Treasury
Internal Revenue Service
Fresno, CA 93888-0002

More information is available on the IRS website.

11. Can I file a claim if I had no earnings?

Yes. You are eligible for an advanced payment even if you had zero income in 2019.

12. What do I do if I did not file a tax return in 2018 or 2019 and my income was higher than $12,200 (individually) or $24,400 (jointly)?

The IRS does not currently have a mechanism in place to offer you an advanced refund if you did not file a 2018 or 2019 tax return but were required to do so because your qualifying income was higher than the amounts above. However, you may still be eligible for a CARES Act credit on your 2020 tax return. You should consult a tax professional for further advice on whether to file a belated 2018 or 2019 tax return, but it is unclear whether doing so at this time will result in issuance of an advance refund to you.

13. Can I make a claim if I do not have a bank account?

Yes. Just leave blanks in the “refund” section (lines 20-22) on the claim form, which ask for routing and account numbers. The IRS has indicated it will mail checks to people without bank accounts.

14. What do I do if I get a refund check but I am incarcerated? How can I be sure that a check sent to me inside will be allocated properly and not credited to someone else with a similar name?

Please check with your facility to understand its rules on how government tax refund checks will be distributed.

Read the text of the applicable regulation for California, 15 CA ADC § 3140.

In order to be sure that your check is applied correctly once it is sent to a correctional facility, you must add your unique correctional identification number to the address line of your claim form. Please use whatever shorthand is appropriate for your facility. For example, a correctional number for people in California state prisons is called a CDCR number, and it would be listed like this on your claim form:

John Smith
Name of Prison, street or P.O. Box address, CDCR # 12345
City, California zip code

NOTE: Some checks must be sent to a specific prison P.O. box or trust account that is different from your current address of residence. You are strongly advised to check with correctional authorities to make sure your payment will be properly deposited.

15. What do I do if I applied for a stimulus check before September 24 and it was rejected, or what do I do if the check was intercepted or returned?

The court order directs the IRS to automatically re-process these claims by October 24, 2020.

If you do not receive your check or direct deposit shortly after the processing deadline of October 24, 2020, please check the IRS website to view the status of your claim: IRS.gov/getmypayment

If you do not receive your payment by November 1, 2020, and do not see it scheduled on the IRS website, please let us know.

16. What information do I need to have before filling out a claim?

You will need:

Full name
Mailing address
Email address
Date of birth
Valid Social Security number (unless you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and are married to a military member)
Bank account and routing number (if you are seeking direct deposit into your own account rather than a check)
Your department of corrections (“CDCR” or “DOC” or “Prison”) number, to be added to your address line (if claimant is residing inside a correctional facility, to ensure check gets applied to the right person)

For each qualifying child:

Name
Social Security Number or Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number
Relationship of child to you or your spouse

17. How can I help people learn about stimulus money and making a claim?

We have created 3 forms that may be useful for printing and sharing:

18. Will I hear from the IRS about the status of my claim?

If you filed a claim electronically through the online portal, you should receive an email from the IRS advising you when the claim is “approved”. The IRS has also set up a claim tracking system that attempts to provide information about the status of claims within 2 weeks of receiving a claim. IRS states that you can find out the status of your claim by going to: IRS.gov/getmypayment

19. What if I filed a claim but have not received a deposit or a check from the IRS?

The IRS has advised that it is currently taking 4-6 weeks to process claims, from the time the claims “are approved” by the IRS. Please be advised that longer delays may be possible.

However, once a payment goes out, the IRS has indicated that it will let claimants know by letter that the payment was made: “For security reasons, the IRS plans to mail a letter about the economic impact payment to the taxpayer’s last known address within 15 days after the payment is paid. The letter will provide information on how the payment was made and how to report any failure to receive the payment. If a taxpayer is unsure they’re receiving a legitimate letter, the IRS urges taxpayers to visit IRS.gov first to protect against scam artists.”
Payment Eligibility & General Information (Q.A.4)

In the event that you receive a notice from the IRS that it sent you a payment but you did not receive it, you can also call the IRS help line at 800-919-9835 to speak with a live person about the issue. The IRS also provides a number of resource links at IRS.gov

Persons receiving checks inside correctional facilities may experience additional delays in receiving funds, or a reduction of funds depending on the rules of the facility. Please note that the IRS has indicated it, too, will divert payments when there are outstanding debts, such as unpaid child support.

20. What do I do if I think that my check was stolen by an identity thief?

You can report it to two government watchdogs (the Federal Trade Commission and the Internal Revenue Service) at the same time. According to their published guidance, here is what to do:

Visit IdentityTheft.gov, the government’s one-stop resource for people to report identity theft and get a personal recovery plan. Click “Get started.” The next page asks, “Which statement best describes our situation?” Click the line that says, “Someone filed a Federal tax return – or claimed an economic stimulus payment – using my information.” You’re on your way.

IdentityTheft.gov will ask you some questions so that it can complete an IRS Identity Theft Affidavit (IRS Form 14039) for you, and submit it electronically to the IRS. You can include a personal statement too, to tell the IRS details about how your identity was misused to claim your economic impact payment. You also can download a copy of your completed Affidavit for your files. And, IdentityTheft.gov also will give you a recovery plan with steps you can take to help protect yourself from further identity theft.

Use IdentityTheft.gov to report suspected identity theft only. If you have other concerns about your economic impact payment, visit the IRS’s Economic Impact Payment Information Center and Get My Payment Frequently Asked Questions pages for detailed, and frequently-updated, answers to questions. You also can find information here about payments that the IRS may have deposited to an account you don’t recognize.

Whether you’re waiting for your payment, or even if it’s already arrived, keep alert for scammers trying to steal your personal information, your money, or both. Remember, the IRS will not call, text you, email you, or contact you on social media asking for personal or bank account information – even related to the stimulus payments. Also, watch out for emails and texts with attachments or links claiming to have special information about the payments. They’re fake, and they may be phishing for your personal information or might download malware to your computer, tablet, or phone.

See “Did an ID Thief Steal Your Stimulus Payment?” for more information.

21. What is a “class action” or “class action lawsuit”?

A “class action” or “class action lawsuit” is a lawsuit in which a few individuals (plaintiffs) file a law suit against a defendant to protect the interests of a larger group of similar people (the class) affected by the same actions of the defendant. In this case, the plaintiffs are Colin Scholl and Lisa Strawn. The plaintiffs are representing themselves and a national class of incarcerated people who were illegally denied CARES Act (”stimulus”) payments by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on the basis of their incarcerated status. A victory in this case means that the IRS has to stop discriminating against people who are incarcerated and award them a CARES Act (“stimulus”) payment if the incarcerated person meets other basic eligibility requirements (described above, in these Frequently Asked Questions).

The eligibility requirements for CARES Act payments were established earlier this year by the United States Congress, and these requirements are not the subject of the lawsuit. Likewise, the US government decided the methods through which payments would be made (by direct deposit into bank accounts or by checks mailed to the claimants), and those methods are not the subject of the lawsuit. Finally, the case was filed against the IRS and Treasury Department challenging misconduct by those agencies, and the case is not against correctional authorities, meaning that the case does not affect correctional polices about mail or income received by people who are incarcerated.

A copy of the complaint is linked below.

22. Can I read the official court documents relating to the case?

Yes, see the list below.

23. Can you tell me more about The Equal Justice Society and Lieff Cabraser, who initiated the lawsuit discussed here?

About Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP

Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, is a 100-plus attorney AV-rated law firm founded in 1972 with offices in San Francisco, New York, Nashville, and Munich. Described by The American Lawyer as “one of the nation’s premier plaintiffs’ firms,” Lieff Cabraser has litigated some of the most important civil cases in the United States and assisted clients in recovering over $124 billion in verdicts and settlements. In March of 2020, Benchmark Litigation named Lieff Cabraser its “California Plaintiff Firm of the Year.” Lieff Cabraser is committed to access to justice for all.

About The Equal Justice Society

The Equal Justice Society is transforming the nation’s consciousness on race through law, social science, and the arts. Led by President Eva Paterson, its legal strategy aims to broaden conceptions of present-day discrimination to include unconscious and structural bias by using social science, structural analysis, and real-life experience. Currently, EJS targets its advocacy efforts on school discipline, special education, and the school-to-prison pipeline, race-conscious remedies, and inequities in the criminal justice system.

Contact a Lawyer at Lieff Cabraser

Partners Kelly M. Dermody and Yaman Salahi and Associate Jallé Dafa are the Lieff Cabraser attorneys working on this case.

If you or your loved one is currently serving time in a state or federal facility or was recently released, please contact us for more information about your rights by filling out the form below. Your inquiries in pursuit of legal advice are privileged and confidential, and you will not be charged a fee to speak with us. The information you provide can help us hold the government accountable for its unlawful actions. NOTE: Please DO NOT submit your Social Security number if you use the form to contact us.


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In the box below, please describe whether you or a loved one are currently incarcerated, where the incarcerated individual is currently located, and whether or not they have received a CARES Act payment. We will review your message and contact you as soon as possible.