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Didn’t get $1,400 stimulus checks? Took money from retirement accounts? Q&A with readers.

Women, in particular, fell back on retirement saving during COVID-19. How to play catch up.

The Internal Revenue Service building is in Washington, D.C. Three in 10 (31%) Americans withdrew or borrowed money from retirement accounts during the pandemic, mostly to cover basic living expenses, according to a January survey.
The Internal Revenue Service building is in Washington, D.C. Three in 10 (31%) Americans withdrew or borrowed money from retirement accounts during the pandemic, mostly to cover basic living expenses, according to a January survey.Read moreChuck Myers / MCT

An Inquirer reader asked about the ever-changing 2020 tax year. Below we address some common questions.

Q: “We filed last year, and the IRS cashed our check when we owed money,” wrote the reader.

“Now we have not received the last two stimulus payments because they state there is no record of our taxes being filed — yet they cashed the check. We are eligible for both stimulus payments. The IRS says you can’t make an appointment at a local office. Do we have no recourse other than to re-file the 2020 return?”

A: The IRS admits it’s behind. The IRS commissioner testified to the House Ways and Means Committee about the backlog. “What your reader is describing is a common issue that we’ve seen in our office and that has been discussed a lot,” said Drucker & Scaccetti accounting firm shareholder Rosalind Sutch.

If the check was cashed, on the back of the check, the IRS should track that amount. You may have to refile 2019 returns, sending certified mail, return receipt, but the agency is already backed up.

If the IRS cashed the check, you shouldn’t be penalized because the government has the funds.

“Our best advice is that taxpayer electronically file 2020 returns with direct deposit information whenever possible — it will expedite the processing,” Sutch said.

Separately, even if the IRS claims it hasn’t received your 2019 tax filing, you can still claim the stimulus money you are owed as a credit on 2020 taxes.

“When you are filing your 2020 taxes, those payments are counted as advanced rebate recovery payments. Claim those credits on your 2020 return. The first round totaled $1,200 and second round $600. So you would get a $1,800 rebate on taxes” if you didn’t get either check — and were eligible — said Mitch Gerstein, an accountant with Isdaner & Co. in Bala Cynwyd.

What about the third round of $1,400? Again, “if you don’t receive that money, you’re entitled to a credit in 2021.”

Graham O’Neill, director of Campaign for Working Families in Philadelphia, gave similar advice, noting that as of March 5, the IRS still had 2.4 million tax returns that came in before 2021.

“Even if the 2019 return is processed at this point, it will not get them the first ($1,200) or second round ($600), although it should trigger release of the third round ($1,400).

“At this point, their only real recourse is to file a 2020 return where they can claim the missing first two payments and trigger the release of the third,” O’Neill said.

Taxpayers can check their 2019 Account transcript and 2019 Tax Return transcript online:

Also, the Campaign for Working Families and VITA/Temple University offer free tax-filing help around Philadelphia.

Q: “Did many investors take money out of their retirement funds due to COVID? If so, how do I catch up after the pandemic?”

A: Three in 10 (31%) Americans withdrew or borrowed money from retirement accounts during the pandemic, mostly to cover basic living expenses, according to a January survey of older workers by Kiplinger’s and Personal Capital.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March 2020, allowed hardship withdrawals of up to $100,000 from a retirement account through Dec. 31.

Fidelity and Vanguard witnessed money flowing out. More than eight in 10 Americans (82%) said events of the past year affected retirement plans, Fidelity reported. One-third estimated it will take two to three years to get back on track, due to such factors as job loss or retirement withdrawals.

About 1.6 million Fidelity clients withdrew a total of $32 billion between April and December through CARES Act distributions. That represented 6.3% of retirement plan participants at Fidelity. The median totaled $2,500, the average $9,400, and roughly 51,000 people withdrew the full $100,000.

Vanguard’s average equaled about $24,600, with a median of $13,300. Vanguard declined to give the total dollar amount but said about one in four people took out nearly all or 100% of their money, and one-half took out less than 50%.

What do you do now if you need to play catch-up?

  1. Repay the money. The sooner, the better. Pay at least some back in 2021.

  2. Get a loan. If you’re nearly out of money, consider a home equity loan or 401(k) loan instead of another withdrawal.

  3. Taxes. These special COVID-19 withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. One-third of the money you withdraw will be considered income by the IRS for each of the following three years.

Women and the she-cession

During the pandemic, women face a “triple whammy”: as frontline workers in the pandemic, in industries experiencing economic recession, and as caregivers shouldering domestic work due to school and day care closures, according to new research.

Women are now more likely to be unemployed than men, and mothers of young children report higher unemployment rates and labor force exit rates compared with fathers. Even in households in which both parents remained employed and telecommute, mothers are reducing work time to a greater extent.

This likely exacerbates inequalities between women and men in retirement, lifetime earnings, and economic independence.

For those women still in the workforce, Fidelity offers webinars on how women can play catch-up, including extra contributions to retirement accounts, delay taking Social Security after the minimum eligible age of 62, and recognize that gender does have hidden costs. While all 401(k) balances were up last year, women saved less than men, according to LT Trust.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, women continue to report historic levels of stress surrounding their finances, job security, and long-term savings. New research from Fidelity finds that 79% of women are currently feeling the weight of that stress, up from 67% last fall.

One silver lining? “Women take greater control over their financial lives. We saw this firsthand as annual retail account openings by women grew by an unprecedented 41%,” said Kathleen Murphy, president of personal investing at Fidelity Investments.