Corona Cash and Refund Anticipation Checks

Corona Cash and Refund Anticipation Checks

Posted: 12 Apr 2020 09:07 PM PDT

Vijay Raghavan, who will be joining the Brooklyn Law School faculty this summer shared a troubling observation about the payment of the recovery rebates (“Corona Cash” or “Mnuchin Mnoney”) through direct deposit to taxpayers. It seems that the payments for around 15% of individual tax filings might be going to bank accounts that are closed or not controlled by the taxpayers. That 15% is surely a much larger percentage of households eligible for Corona Cash. I wouldn’t be surprised if close to a quarter of eligible households are affected.

Raghavan writes:

Recovery rebates (stimulus payments) under the CARES Act are supposed
to go out this week. A number of people have noted that the payments
will be delayed for unbanked consumers and the funds are at risk of
being swept by lenders or debt collectors. What has received less
attention is the fact that many banked or underbanked taxpayers may
not receive their rebates because they financed tax preparation with a
refund anticipation check (“RAC”). [AJL: a RAC is distinct from a refund anticipation loan, when the preparer advances the taxpayer part of the anticipated tax refund.]

RACs allow taxpayers to defer the cost of tax preparation and finance
preparation out of their refund. The refund is deposited in a
temporary bank account that the tax preparer arranges to have opened.
The taxpayer may never be made aware that the temporary account
exists. The refund is then distributed to the taxpayer minus
preparation fees and ancillary fees via check, direct deposit, or
using some other payment instrument.

The conventional wisdom is RACs are primarily used by unbanked
consumers. But many banked or underbanked taxpayers may also use RACs.
Smaller tax prep chains and individual tax prep stores rely on RAC
financing for at least two reasons. First, the intermediaries these
tax preparers use to process the returns charge numerous
per-transaction fees, which are easier to pay for out of a taxpayer’s
refund since the cash-strapped taxpayer can’t afford to pay for the
intermediaries’ services up-front. Second, financing may serve to
conceal inordinately high tax preparation fees. As a result, it is not
uncommon to find tax preparation stores in low-income neighborhoods
that refuse to accept up-front payment and only process RAC-financed
returns. In the 2018 tax year, approximately 21 million returns were
financed with RACs. [AJL: for context, there were around 150 million individual returns filed in 2018.]

RACs present a few problems for stimulus distribution. If returns were
already filed and processed, the temporary banks accounts may be
closed, which will delay distribution of the rebate. If the temporary
account is still open, the rebate may sit in the account without being
distributed. There should be less problems if returns have not been
filed or are still pending. But if refunds are initially distributed
to the tax preparer as opposed to the taxpayer (which happens in some
cases), there is some risk tax preparer may take the CARES Act money.

The good news is large chains like H&R Block and tax software
companies should have bank account information for the returns they
processed. They could turn this data over to the Treasury but the
CARES Act may limit the Treasury’s ability to disburse payments. The
CARES Act seems to only allow electronic disbursement to accounts the
taxpayer has previously authorized. Taxpayers who regularly financed
tax prep with RACs likely have not authorized disbursement to their
own bank account or may not maintain an open bank account in regular
use. Treasury probably has to lean on preparers and software companies
to ensure that payments to RAC-financed returns are disbursed to the
taxpayer bank accounts.

The problems in doing a quick disbursal of Corona Cash highlight some deficiencies in the US payment and banking system. The House counterproposal to the CARES Act had in it a provision for the creation of FedAccounts–giving every consumer a bank account held at the Fed. It’s kind of late in the game to try and set up such a system to deal with the corona virus crisis, but the crisis is exposing areas that need to be shored up going forward.

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