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The Moneyist: I filed a joint tax return with my estranged wife because she is a gambler and her finances are a mess. But I got NO stimulus check — what can I do?

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Dear Moneyist,

I am a full-time student and I’m 50 years old. I graduate in December 2020 and maintain a 4.0 GPA so I work hard to achieve academic success. Due to achieving such academic prowess, I was limited to work hours throughout the 2019 year and my combined income was $13,000.

I separated from my wife, Sharon, four years ago. She inherited a pension worth $172,000 as a result of an untimely death of her ex-husband. Sharon lives in Oklahoma and I live in Arkansas. Sharon had a gambling issue and exhausted all of this income throughout the 2019 tax season.

I never saw any of that money other than a birthday cake, a gift, and a night at the casino that she gave to me as part of my birthday present. It was brought to my attention in November that her money was gone. I was not happy, but it is her money and she has to live with it.

Related: ‘I’m astounded that I have NOT received my payment’: When will I receive my stimulus check?

To help her, I filed a joint tax return.

Although we are separated, we are good friends and I try to look out for her in any way that I can. We filed in February and, shortly thereafter, the pandemic hit. Her pension worth $171,000, other income totaling $21,000, her gambling winnings of $29,000, and my annual salary of $13,000 put us over the threshold for receiving any CARES Act assistance.

In helping Sharon out, I ended up getting screwed. Is there any form of grievance I can file for to obtain the $1,200 I believe I am owed? If so, how can I? Also, will we miss out on the second stimulus, if there should be one?

I am out of work as of April and, due to the economic crisis countrywide, jobs are sparse, to say the least. I hope to obtain work at the University this fall in the work/study program, but that will not be until August, if we are allowed on campus.

It is proposed at this time that school will resume normal operations this fall, but we all know how suddenly this could change. To top it all off, my income will be even less than $13,000 this year and Sharon’s will be less than $20,000.

Mr. Nice Guy

Dear Mr. Nice,

Sometimes, I come across a “needle on vinyl” moment in letters when the music suddenly stops and there’s an almighty screech of the steel against the record. It’s usually a moment that’s crucial to the problem and the solution, one that is directly related to the financial problem at hand and the emotional issue that may ensure that the letter writer makes that same mistake again. If that happens, it will seem to be a completely separate situation, but as many of us find out in life, our challenges are really the same “needle on vinyl” moment happening again and again, and again.

Here was that moment: “Although we are separated, we are good friends and I try to look out for her in any way that I can.” Your estranged wife has a gambling problem and you were able to swoop in and help her out. Will your wife show you appreciation? In the moment, I’m sure she will tell you what it means to her, and what that act of kindness makes you (a “nice guy”) and that’s gratifying. But appreciation is like cotton candy. It tastes sweet, but it disappears and leaves you with an odd, sticky taste in your mouth that you can’t quite identify. That’s when you realize appreciation is cheap.

You didn’t get screwed. That’s a fundamental error in your thinking and your interpretation of the CARES Act. You punk’d yourself, my friend. It was your decision to file jointly and, therefore, it’s your responsibility. The good news is you didn’t get screwed by the CARES Act. The stimulus check is effectively a tax credit on your 2020 income-tax return, so you should be made whole in 2021. True, you won’t receive it this year, but you should not lose out on your $1,200 entirely. If file your 2020 tax returns as a single filer next year, you are likely to receive the tax credit at that time.

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Now to the “ethics and etiquette” part of your question. This is the trickier part. Sharon made the mistake. You took the fall. A problem shared is a problem halved, right? If only life’s conundrums, mathematics and the government’s economic stimulus checks worked like that. When the solution addresses the symptoms rather than the cause, a problem shared is often a problem doubled, tripled and quadrupled. It will keep happening again, my friend, until your wife deals with the source of her gambling addiction, assuming another addiction does not pop up replace this one.

How many times have any of us thrown our hands up and cried to the Heavens, “I was just trying to do the right thing!” That’s not enough. We must also ask ourselves: “Why?” No one wins. Your wife doesn’t win. You enabled her to gamble another day. You don’t win because you could have received $1,200 at a time when you clearly needed it to pay your bills. So why did you help her out? Why did you protect her? Perhaps you can tell this story, engender sympathy from friends and family who can shake their heads and say, “Once again, she done him wrong.”

There is a valuable lesson for you here, and it’s worth a hell of a lot more than $1,200.

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com

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