The CARES Act, signed into law in March of 2020, includes “economic impact payments” to most U.S. residents with a Social Security number who made less than $75,000 per year. The payments went first to those who had a 2019 or 2020 tax refund deposited electronically in their accounts. Many low-income Minnesotans had to take extra steps in order to receive their stimulus checks.
“We are talking about $1,200 per individual adult, and another $500 for each dependent,” says Assistant Supervising Attorney Aisha Servaty.
“Many of our clients are vulnerable seniors, unemployed, on general assistance, or dealing with housing instability. This amount might represent multiple months’ worth of income.”
Legal Aid’s Low-Income Tax Clinic (LITC) is the only organization in the state guiding low-income people through the IRS’s non-filer form to receive economic stimulus payments. The LITC team helps clients go to the IRS website, fill out the form, and submit it. They walk them through from start to finish, including a follow-up to see if they were accepted or rejected.
The first step was to get word out to statewide client communities and partner organizations about the payments and to let people know that LITC was available to help. Those who didn’t file income taxes or receive federal benefits had to use the non-filer tool, and anyone receiving federal benefits needed to use the tool to claim their dependents. Servaty was ready as soon as the non-filer tool became available on the IRS website.
“We got flooded in the first week,” Servaty says. “We had 78 intakes. By mid-May, we had over 200 callers who needed help.”
Twenty Legal Aid staff from other units stepped in to help the LITC unit (which consists of Servaty plus one full-time attorney and a law clerk), each taking a case or two or three. In addition, Servaty trained six pro bono volunteer attorneys. By late May, the team had followed up with every intake call.
With Legal Aid’s physical offices closed, the next step of establishing contact with the clients required time and patience. Many clients lack internet access, and some don’t have phones or physical mailing addresses. Advocates needed to help some clients set up an email account or open a bank account.
“Without help most of them would definitely not have received payments,” Servaty says. “As we walked them through the forms, we heard stories of the impact the money would make in their lives.”
Many couldn’t afford rent or utilities. For some, the payment meant a chance to pay down debt or stock up on food and other essentials. Paper checks didn’t start going out until late May. Most people with the greatest need, even if they filed immediately, didn’t see payments before June.
In addition to organizing this effort and continuing with her other responsibilities, Servaty keeps the most difficult cases for herself. Some clients have unique situations that require legal analysis and understanding of tax law. Those cases take more time, but correct filing prevents complications or later problems with the IRS.
“When we talk with clients, we make them the most important person in our day,” says Servaty. “Nothing is stable, and people are very anxious about their finances. They have our full attention, and we do a lot of listening. We want them to know they have an advocate who is there to help, and we will do everything in our power to make sure they get their payment.”