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THE FINE PRINT

Her mother has been dead for months, but still received a stimulus check

Mary Connaughton received a $1,200 stimulus check addressed to her mother; the only problem is that her mother has been dead for eight months.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

As she sorted the day’s mail earlier this week in her Framingham home, Mary Z. Connaughton was surprised to see an envelope from the IRS addressed to her mother.

That’s because her mother’s been dead for eight months.

But what Connaughton found inside really startled her: a letter, signed by the president, informing her mother that a $1,200 stimulus check had been direct deposited into her bank account.

“We hope this payment provides meaningful support to you during this period,” the letter read.

Connaughton immediately logged into the bank account she had shared with her mother, which she hadn’t checked since just after her mother’s death last August. Back then she had wanted to make sure that her mother’s Social Security deposits had stopped. They had.

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This letter was sent to Mary Connaughton's mother.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

So why then had the government deposited $1,200 into the account of a dead woman?

“It was disconcerting, emotionally,” said Connaughton, a CPA and director of government transparency at the Pioneer Institute. “To see her name on this. It really took me aback. And I wondered how many other families are going through this?”

As it happens, more than a few, though the government hasn’t said how many. Enough, though, apparently, to have caught the attention of President Trump, who recently said at a briefing: “Sometimes people are listed, they die and they get a check. That can happen. We’ll get that back.”

On Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin disputed the notion that heirs can keep the stimulus money sent by the IRS to their deceased loved ones, which was raised in a Los Angeles Times story.

The former head of the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an internal IRS watchdog, was quoted as saying that since the CARES Act did not specifically bar heirs from keeping the money it was permissible, pointing out that relatives of deceased recipients did so during an earlier round of stimulus money following the 2008 financial meltdown.

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“You’re not supposed to keep that payment,” Mnuchin told the Wall Street Journal in response to the suggestion that heirs could pocket the money. “We’re checking the databases, but there could be a scenario where we missed something, and yes, the heirs should be returning that money.”

The Treasury Department has not yet provided details on how it plans to retrieve payments to the deceased.

Connaughton said she never for a moment considered keeping the money. Instead, she immediately arranged through the bank for the money to be returned to the government.

“I don’t want it,” she said. “It was not earned. I know my mother’s spirit and she would not want me to keep it. I just wouldn’t be right.”

Connaughton’s mother, Mary (“Elise”) Zarilli, of Southborough, died at age 89 after raising five children and working long hours as a nurse and real estate broker.

“She was a rock, as honest as they come,” Connaughton said. "Her death was a huge loss. My mother was my hero and this pandemic is my first crisis without her warm hug.”

Mary "Elise" ZarrilliJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Connaughton said the funeral home that handled her mother’s arrangements had notified the Social Security Administration of her death. She wondered why the IRS hadn’t simply checked Social Security records before sending stimulus checks.

“It would have made good sense to do that, and I can’t imagine it would have required a lot of time or effort,” she said.

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Such mistaken government payments to the dead are not unprecedented. Nearly 72,000 deceased Social Security recipients received $250 stimulus checks following the 2008 financial crisis, according to an inspector general report.

Connaughton said straightening out the stimulus check with the bank was a headache, but she’s relieved it’s taken care of.

“Now, let her rest in peace,” she said.


Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.