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People who are in prison can get a stimulus check, but there's a catch. What to know today

The IRS was ordered to give people who are incarcerated a chance to claim a stimulus payment of up to $1,200 apiece, but one of two deadlines has already passed.

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A federal judge has ordered the IRS to issue stimulus checks to eligible people even if they're incarcerated. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

People who are in prison and jail are eligible to qualify for the first stimulus check of up to $1,200 per adult, but with the tight Nov. 4 deadline to file physical paperwork now passed, inmates have until Nov. 21 to file an online claim with the IRS. It is not clear how many people who are incarcerated will be able to access these online forms. Internet access is often limited in prison and rules vary from state to state.

The deadline emerged after confusing and often contradictory guidance that saw the IRS send money to people in jail and prison, then ask for it back (see this cached IRS website). Backed by a ruling from a federal judge in California in response to a class-action lawsuit, the IRS began sending prisons across the US official forms to distribute to the 2.3 million people residing in US jails and prisons.

Although the IRS has already appealed the decision and requested an injunction against the current ruling, for now the agency's website acknowledges the ruling that "the IRS cannot deny a payment to someone who is incarcerated if they meet the criteria."

The path has not been smooth. It's up to individual facilities to pass around the forms to people in their populations and collect and mail the paperwork by the deadline, the Honolulu Civil Beat reported Oct. 30. Some prisons have been accused of actively intercepting the IRS paperwork intended for the inmates as well as blocking two newsletters that had informed inmates of their right to claim the check, NBC reported Oct. 21.

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"This money can be invaluable to help people starting over," said Brittany Herrington, a program coordinator with a mental health center in Kentucky, The Courier Journal reported Oct. 29.

Here's what we know about how to notify the IRS about an incarcerated person's eligibility and where to send the money. And we'll answer other questions you may have about stimulus checks being sent to those who are incarcerated. For more stimulus check information, here's what we know about qualifications for the second stimulus check (and who may not qualify), where negotiations stand on a new stimulus bill and when a second stimulus check could arrive. This story was updated with new information.

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Incarcerated people rarely if ever have access to the internet, yet IRS instructions for notifying the agency require it.

Angela Lang/CNET

Can people still incarcerated get a stimulus check?

Anyone who's eligible to receive a stimulus check is eligible to receive one even if they are incarcerated. The IRS is actively collecting information and sending out payments. That could potentially change if a judge rules in favor of the IRS with regard to its appeal, but the IRS has actively sent prison information to pass around to inmates, by court order. People in prisons now have until Nov. 21 to file a claim in order to get stimulus money by the end of 2020 (projected).

Check our complete stimulus guide for more details.

How does someone behind bars request a check?

The IRS says information can be provided using the Non-Filers: Enter Payment Info Here online tool by Nov. 21, or you can file a 2019 simplified paper tax return following the instructions on the File a Simplified Paper Tax Return page. The deadline for filing a paper return was Nov. 4.

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You can contact the IRS directly if you have more questions about receiving a stimulus check for an incarcerated individual. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Can another person request a stimulus payment for the incarcerated individual?

Most jails and prisons do not allow internet access, or allow limited access to email, for example, to those incarcerated in them, so it seems improbable if not impossible that individuals themselves could follow the IRS' instructions for providing information online. The instructions on the IRS website don't explicitly say that a representative friend or family member can notify the IRS regarding an incarcerated person, so the answer isn't clear. There is also the option to fill out paperwork by the Nov. 4 deadline.

What happens if you miss the Nov. 21 deadline?

As with other groups of people who share the same Nov. 21 deadline to claim a stimulus check electronically, people in prison will be able to file a make-up payment during the April 2021 tax season, assuming that the law is still upheld. The IRS said it will release more information closer to tax season. 

Do you have to send a check back if the IRS asks?

According to tax experts who spoke to MarketWatch, the CARES Act did not include a "clawback" provision that would allow the IRS to force people who received stimulus checks in error to return those checks. So far, the IRS has not indicated there will be any kind of penalty for not sending back stimulus payments, although the agency does make its expectation clear and has a web page that details the process for returning stimulus payments. Either way, the question is moot so long as the current federal court order still stands.

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Millions of nonincarcerated people, as well as many behind bars, who are still waiting for stimulus checks, may feel they've been hung out to dry.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The IRS asks recipients to return checks for people who have recently died and people who received additional money in error, for example, if they received two payments instead of one, or are a citizen of another country that is not a US territory. For example, dozens of Austrian citizens reportedly received $1,200 bank transfers representing stimulus money, in error. 

What if a spouse who's not in jail got a stimulus check?

If you received a stimulus check that included money intended for a spouse who is incarcerated (or was at the time) and you returned your spouse's portion to the IRS, the exact path to getting a replacement check issued is unclear. You could start by calling the IRS at the number listed in the letter sent along with paper stimulus checks, 800-919-9835, or the main IRS help number, 800-829-1040.

You could also look up your spouse's information on the IRS's Get My Payment tool and, depending on the information you get from there, try entering their information in the Non-Filers tool.

For more stimulus check information pertaining to your unique situation, check out our guides to stimulus checks and child support, stimulus checks for older adults and how to report a missing check to the IRS.