News & Politics

I Haven’t Received My Stimulus Check. My 17-Year-Old Sister Did.

Of course the baby of the family is also the favorite of the IRS.

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I was a good little American citizen this year. I filed my taxes before April 15, gave the government my direct-deposit information, and received my federal refund two weeks ago. You know what I haven’t gotten? My $1,200 stimulus check.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t complain. I know thousands of others are in the same boat, and many are in a far more precarious financial situation. But I’m going to complain. I’m going to complain because my 17-year-old, high-school-junior sister—a dependent in every sense of the word—woke up last Wednesday morning to find $1,200 deposited in her student checking account, courtesy of the IRS.

Of course, she’s thrilled. Twelve hundred bucks is a pretty sum for anyone to have magically dumped in her bank account. It’s even more significant if she’s grossing only $4,000 a year working at the local chocolate shop. There has been ample gloating in our sibling group chat:

Foul language redacted so Mom doesn’t yell at us

I’ll admit it: As the ever-burdened oldest child, I am petty and resentful. She’s the baby, coddled by our parents and grandparents—and now, apparently, even the Internal Revenue Service. I’m also miffed because I have a sneaking suspicion that the government accidentally deposited my stimulus check into her account, and nobody ever taught me how to politely ask family members to transfer me the mysterious government money that I’m pretty sure was supposed to be mine but that I’m not certain is because it could have just been a random mistake or a crazy coincidence and my money is coming soon, and then if they transferred it, I’d have $2,400 of government money and not know what to do with the extra $1,200.

Personal matters aside, I’m upset because this whole mishap is chipping away at what little faith I have left in our federal government’s competence. I first learned of its technological ineptitude during the disastrous Obamacare rollout, starting in 2010, so I expected the distribution of the stimulus checks to have some hiccups. I was prepared for the process to be convoluted, for checks to be late, and for some never to come at all. But I never imagined money could be distributed to the wrong account, and a minor’s at that.

Look, I get it. In the context of a $2 trillion stimulus package, getting worked up over an errant $1,200 is like going into hysterics over a spilled drop of a gallon of milk. But that $1,200 could mean a lot to someone on the edge of poverty or newly unemployed. It could be the difference between having food for a month and not eating at all. This program was created to help Americans most in need, yet the homeless and many low-income people will have to wait months for a paper check, and up to 21 million filers who used inexpensive electronic filing services such as TurboTax might now have to wait for a paper disbursement as well.

Yes, these are unprecedented times, and it’s unrealistic to expect the government to flawlessly distribute trillions of dollars to 150 million eligible citizens. But other countries have seemingly done so with far fewer stumbles. If we’re going to subscribe to the notion that the US has some of the finest technological minds in the world at its disposal, we should expect more. 

As for my sister, she’s not sure what to do. Because her 17th birthday was last Tuesday, at the height of social distancing, part of her sees the windfall as well-deserved compensation for the enforced absence of a party with friends. Per the advice of my parents, she has moved the payment to her college savings account to let it accrue interest while they figure out what to do.

But really, what can they do? I’m in the process of trying to obtain my own (legitimate) check and have no idea whom to call or go to. My parents both work in healthcare and are busy with their jobs. My sister doesn’t even know how to file her own taxes, let alone deal with the IRS. Though I feel a sense of injustice, I can’t really blame them for not breaking their backs to return money erroneously sent to her when there isn’t a clear avenue to fix the problem. 

For now, the money will sit in my sister’s college savings account, and she’s hoping it stays there. When I told her I was writing about her jackpot, she begged me not to narc her out to the IRS. I explained I didn’t even know how to do that. Evidently satisfied with my response, she texted: “Omg, I’m a news story!” Just what you’d expect from the nouveau riche.



Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.