So, How Will the “Recovery Rebate” Refunds Work This Time? Part I

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This is the first of a two-part post on the portion of the coronavirus legislation that adopts, once again, “recovery rebate” credits and refunds.

When Congress passed the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, Pub. L. 107-16 – i.e., Bush 43’s first tax bill – it reduced taxes, in part, by creating a new 10% bracket.  Congress wanted to get into taxpayer hands some of the benefit of that rate reduction even before returns were due.  So, it came up with the idea of sending checks mid-year.  The methods of sending and computing those checks were laid out in a new Code section 6428.  That section was entitled “Acceleration of 10 Percent Income Tax Rate Bracket Benefit for 2001”.

Even before the economy cratered in late 2008, Congress saw what was coming, so, in February 2008, in the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, Pub. L. 110-185, Congress revived and revised section 6428 – now to send “recovery rebate” checks in mid-2008. 

In section 2201 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Congress has again decided to send out checks through the IRS and has again revived and revised section 6428 to send recovery rebate checks in mid-2020. 

Why use the IRS to send out checks, rather than some other government entity?  Well, because Congress wants to base the amount of the checks, in part, on citizens’ income, and only the IRS would have that information handy.

Section 6428 operates as a refundable credit – just like the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit.  Section 6428(b).  (Hereinafter, all references to section 6428 are to the 2020 version, unless I tell you otherwise.)  Because it has been awhile since this recovery rebate credit has been in the law (and because I litigated on behalf of taxpayers the only district court and appellate court opinions addressing the 2008 version of section 6428; see Sarmiento v. United States, 812 F. Supp. 2d 137 (E.D.N.Y. 2011), aff’d in part and rev’d in part, 678 F.3d 147 (2d Cir. 2012), and Maniolos v. United States, 741 F. Supp. 2d 555 (S.D.N.Y. 2010), aff’d per order, 469 Fed. Appx. 56(2d Cir. 2012)), I thought it would be useful for me to give a practical primer on how the new recovery rebate is written, how it was administered last time, and how I think it will be administered this time – because I anticipate the IRS will make administrative choices in 2020 similar to those that the IRS made in 2008.

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The current recovery rebate credit is nominally a credit against 2020 income taxes.  Section 6428(a).  This follows the pattern of the prior two versions of making the credit a credit against the income taxes of the tax year in which the “advanced refund” (i.e., “stimulus check”) is sent out.  That means that, on the 2020 income tax return that you prepare in April 2021, there will likely be a line entry under payments and refundable credits in which you calculate the section 6428 credit using your 2020 income.  You will then subtract from the credit due you on that return the amount of any stimulus check that you received in 2020.  If you are due more credit, you will get it as part of your 2020 refund.  If you have been overpaid through the stimulus check, however, you do not have to return the excess.  Section 6428(e)(1).

This brings me to a comment based on my experience dealing with low-income taxpayers while I headed the Cardozo Tax Clinic during 2008 and 2009:  Most taxpayers, at the time the 2020 return is prepared, will not be sure whether or not they received the stimulus check or the amount thereof.   Since you have to subtract the amount of the stimulus check from the calculation of the 2020 credit, how do you solve this problem?  As discussed below, the stimulus check, if precedent holds, is going to be posted to the taxpayer’s 2019 income tax transcript as (1) a credit and (2) then a refund check. So, order a copy of that transcript for 2019 before preparing the 2020 return. 

If you fail to subtract the amount of a stimulus check that was sent, several things happen:

The excess refundable credit that you claimed is treated as a deficiency in tax under section 6211(b)(4) and can be collected without a notice of deficiency under the math error authority of section 6213(b)(1) and (g).  This is partly stated at section 6428(e)(1) and the rest is stated in subsection (b) of CARES Act section 2201, the non-codified part of the statute that adopted the new section 6428. 

You can also expect a 20% section 6662 penalty to be imposed on that deficiency.

Who gets the credit?  Any individual who is not a nonresident alien or a person who can be claimed as someone else’s dependent.  Section 6428(d).  This is a much broader category of individuals entitled to the credit than in the prior two versions of section 6428.  For the prior versions, smaller credits were allowed if an individual had not paid income tax in the amount of the usual credit, but the individual had a certain amount of qualifying income (which included Social Security benefits).

How much is the credit?  It is $1,200 per person ($2,400 in the case of a joint return) plus $500 per dependent who is a qualifying child of the individual under section 24(c).  Section 6428(a).  That means that the rules of section 24(c) apply to limit the additional $500 to children up to age 17.  All other limits on who is a qualifying child under section 24(c) also apply.

What is the phaseout of the credit?  The phaseout of the credit begins at certain adjusted gross income (AGI) levels, depending on filing status.  The phaseout is 5% of the AGI that exceeds that level.  The level at which the phaseout begins is AGI of $150,000 for joint filers, $112,500 for head of household filers, and $75,000 for single or married filing separately filers.  Section 6428(c).

How is the stimulus check sent to me in mid-2020 calculated, since I don’t know my 2020 income yet, and, indeed, my income is likely to be much lower in 2020 than in prior years?  As with the earlier versions of section 6428, this problem is only partly solved by having the IRS calculate the stimulus check as the amount that would have been due you under subsection (a) if your 2019 tax information were used.  Section 6428(f).  As you can see, though, many more people are likely to face smaller stimulus checks than they will ultimately be due for a recovery rebate refund under this system.  For example, say a single filer earned $200,000 of AGI in 2019.  She would get no stimulus check because of the operation of the phaseout.  But, when she filed a 2020 return showing AGI of only $60,000, she would get $1,200 at that time, since she did not get a stimulus check and her AGI was not above the phaseout amount.

What if an individual never filed a 2019 return, so the IRS can’t know the individual’s 2019 AGI?  Well, first, the IRS can substitute 2018 for 2019 in calculating the stimulus check, and, second, “if the individual has not filed a tax return for such individual’s first taxable year beginning in 2018, [the IRS may] use information with respect to such individual for calendar year 2019 provided in (i) Form SSA-1099, Social Security Benefit Statement, or (ii) Form RRB-1099, Social Security Equivalent Benefit Statement.”  Section 6428(f)(5). 

I am not sure what happens if the individual did not file either a 2018 or 2019 return and was not receiving Social Security benefits in 2019.  For example, many taxpayers are working and are slightly overwithheld and so do not bother to file a tax return for the small refund they may be due.  Are these taxpayers going to get a stimulus check? My guess is that they are not.  They will have to wait until they file a 2020 return to get the benefit of the credit.  If they are perennial non-filers, so don’t file for 2020, either, they may never get the credit.  I think the drafters of section 6428 could have been more creative – such as allowing the IRS to total all gross income shown on 2018 or 2019 third-party information returns for purposes of calculating an AGI.

When will the stimulus checks be paid?  The statute does not set a specific date for payment, but it does require that no checks be sent out after December 31, 2020.  Section 6428(f)(3).  For the 2008 checks, the IRS ended up staggering the issuance of checks each week, so as not to overwhelm its computers or staff.  If I recall, the checks were issued over a three-month period, with the last two digits of one’s Social Security Number determining in which tranche any check would be sent.  I am not sure the IRS can do it any faster.  However, if the first checks only go out to some people late summer or early fall, I don’t know how poor people or people who have lost their jobs already will be able to get by in the interim.

There are also provisions in section 6428 and the noncodified accompanying legislation addressing members of the Armed Forces and the treatment of possessions.  I will not discuss those.  However, in my next post, I will discuss issues that arose in the courts in response to the prior versions of section 6428 and how the answers may or may not differ under the current version.

Carlton Smith About Carlton Smith

Carlton M. Smith worked (as an associate and partner) at Roberts & Holland LLP in Manhattan from 1983-1999. From 2003 to 2013, he was the Director of the Cardozo School of Law tax clinic. In his retirement, he volunteers with the tax clinic at Harvard, where he was Acting Director from January to June 2019.

Comments

  1. V. F. Liptak, CFP, NASD arbitrator retired says

    You did not address the effective date that IRS will make such AGI calculations [i.e., 2019 returns are not yet due, but for many, 2019 AGI may be lower than 2018 causing a higher payment if the IRS uses 2019 numbers]. The Washington Post has a calculator that helps define the greater pay, if for instance, the 2019 AGI is 75k or less, those will get the full 1,200 but only 750.00 if it is only 10k higher in 2018. As the credit is tax free and not refundable, it would behoove taxpayers to file now, if they can beat the effective date requested here.

    • Ed Morrow says

      What makes you think it is non-refundable? That section of the bill specifically provides: ‘(b) TREATMENT OF CREDIT.—The credit allowed by subsection (a) shall be treated as allowed by subpart C of part IV of subchapter A of chapter 1.” That refers to refundable credits.

      • V. F. Liptak says

        I got it from reading a synopsis on-line earlier today, probably CNBC, and did not read the entire 900 or any of its pages, from that fact alone as it probably has plenty of ambiguity… kinda like tax return instructions ala the notorious Money Magazine challenge that they did for so long, where each year, after year, 50 different tax preparation pros got the same package of docs but nobody ever had the same bottom line. Enough said.

  2. Informative post, thank you!

    I have a full-time dependent college student over the age of 17 who is claimed as a dependent on my return. It appears that she will not get a check nor is she considered a child per section 24(c). Was this done by design?

    • Carl Smith says

      I am sure that people on the Hill who marked up the 2008 legislation were quite aware of the section 24(c) limitation and what it would do. Whether or not one agrees with the policy choice, it is what it is. BTW, the same limitation was in the 2008 version of section 6428. For those who would like to compare the current version of section 6428 and the prior one, here is the complete text of the prior version:

      2008 Version of 26 U.S.C. § 6428

      § 6428. 2008 recovery rebates for individuals.

      (a) In general. In the case of an eligible individual, there shall be allowed as a credit against the tax imposed by subtitle A for the first taxable year beginning in 2008 an amount equal to the lesser of–
      (1) net income tax liability, or
      (2) $600 ($1,200 in the case of a joint return).

      (b) Special rules.
      (1) In general. In the case of a taxpayer described in paragraph (2)–
      (A) the amount determined under subsection (a) shall not be less than $300 ($600 in the case of a joint return), and
      (B) the amount determined under subsection (a) (after the application of subparagraph (A)) shall be increased by the product of $300 multiplied by the number of qualifying children (within the meaning of section 24(c)) of the taxpayer.
      (2) Taxpayer described. A taxpayer is described in this paragraph if the taxpayer–
      (A) has qualifying income of at least $3,000, or
      (B) has–
      (i) net income tax liability which is greater than zero, and
      (ii) gross income which is greater than the sum of the basic standard deduction plus the exemption amount (twice the exemption amount in the case of a joint return).

      (c) Treatment of credit. The credit allowed by subsection (a) shall be treated as allowed by subpart C of part IV of subchapter A of chapter 1.

      (d) Limitation based on adjusted gross income. The amount of the credit allowed by subsection (a) (determined without regard to this subsection and subsection (f)) shall be reduced (but not below zero) by 5 percent of so much of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income as exceeds $75,000 ($150,000 in the case of a joint return).

      (e) Definitions. For purposes of this section–
      (1) Qualifying income. The term “qualifying income” means–
      (A) earned income,
      (B) social security benefits (within the meaning of section 86(d)), and
      (C) any compensation or pension received under chapter 11, chapter 13, or chapter 15 of title 38, United States Code.
      (2) Net income tax liability. The term “net income tax liability” means the excess of–
      (A) the sum of the taxpayer’s regular tax liability (within the meaning of section 26(b)) and the tax imposed by section 55 for the taxable year, over
      (B) the credits allowed by part IV (other than section 24 and subpart C thereof) of subchapter A of chapter 1.
      (3) Eligible individual. The term “eligible individual” means any individual other than–
      (A) any nonresident alien individual,
      (B) any individual with respect to whom a deduction under section 151 is allowable to another taxpayer for a taxable year beginning in the calendar year in which the individual’s taxable year begins, and
      (C) an estate or trust.
      (4) Earned income. The term “earned income” has the meaning set forth in section 32(c)(2) except that such term shall not include net earnings from self-employment which are not taken into account in computing taxable income.
      (5) Basic standard deduction; exemption amount. The terms “basic standard deduction” and “exemption amount” shall have the same respective meanings as when used in section 6012(a).

      (f) Coordination with advance refunds of credit.
      (1) In general. The amount of credit which would (but for this paragraph) be allowable under this section shall be reduced (but not below zero) by the aggregate refunds and credits made or allowed to the taxpayer under subsection (g). Any failure to so reduce the credit shall be treated as arising out of a mathematical or clerical error and assessed according to section 6213(b)(1).
      (2) Joint returns. In the case of a refund or credit made or allowed under subsection (g) with respect to a joint return, half of such refund or credit shall be treated as having been made or allowed to each individual filing such return.

      (g) Advance refunds and credits.
      (1) In general. Each individual who was an eligible individual for such individual’s first taxable year beginning in 2007 shall be treated as having made a payment against the tax imposed by chapter 1 for such first taxable year in an amount equal to the advance refund amount for such taxable year.
      (2) Advance refund amount. For purposes of paragraph (1), the advance refund amount is the amount that would have been allowed as a credit under this section for such first taxable year if this section (other than subsection (f) and this subsection) had applied to such taxable year.
      (3) Timing of payments. The Secretary shall, subject to the provisions of this title, refund or credit any overpayment attributable to this section as rapidly as possible. No refund or credit shall be made or allowed under this subsection after December 31, 2008.
      (4) No interest. No interest shall be allowed on any overpayment attributable to this section.

  3. Bob Kamman says

    The $500 additional payment is for kids up to age 16, not 17. As I recall the line was drawn right before the point when teen-agers cost the most, because Congress was trying to limit tax cuts to spending decreases. For younger kids, we now have the Divorce Bonus. Mom claims the child on her 2019 return and gets $500. Dad claims the child on his 2020 return, and gets another $500.

    • Carl Smith says

      Bob, You are right. I was sloppy the way I drafted the sentence. I really meant up to (but not including) 17.

  4. Bob Kamman says

    When will the payments be made? One difference between 2008 and today is that most can be made by direct deposit – either to the same account where Social Security benefits are sent monthly, or where the IRS sent a refund either last year or this year. In 2008, the Treasury was physically limited by the number of checks it could print in a week, especially when tax-season refund checks were also being issued. Those limits still exist, but most people today get their refunds by direct deposit.

    Not everyone has the same bank account as they did last month, or last year. But the banks reject Treasury electronic transfers to closed accounts, and then IRS issues a check.

  5. Charles Markham says

    One interesting thing you may wish to comment on is that (I believe) that the prior stimulus payments all were only sent by paper check. (My memory may be failing me.) The legislation speaks to sending the payments by direct deposit. 6428 (f)(3)(B) .

    Here is an example of a pitfall this creates. I have a married couple that filed jointly in 2018. They are now separated. It appears to me the 2018 $2400 will now go in the soon to be ex’s account. Since the couple is now separated and not cooperating, this will prove to be yet another issue to work through. I think that if my client hurries and quickly files a 2019 return on an MFS basis, she will get a $1200 check in only her account. But there are going to be scenarios where the refunds go into the “wrong account” that used to be the “right account”.

    Another issue are clients who “pay-by-refund” their tax prep fees at a storefront or via a software program like TurboTax. This creates a checking account on their profile that was temporary.

  6. Excellent writeup. I look forward to the next installment– and hopefully you may consider commenting on joint filers with NRA spouses. I believe such filers are (one half eligible taxpayer and one half, non-elegible taxpayer), entitled to whatever the eligible person was entitled to standing alone.

  7. I’m curious as to how this rebate interacts with section 911. If a qualified foreign resident earning $150,000 excludes $107,600 (2020 limit) under 911, bringing AGI below $75,000, will they qualify for the full rebate? I’m assuming there’s a provision somewhere that says this doesn’t work, but reading the legislation it doesn’t look like this was considered.

  8. JOSH OBERHOLTZER says

    Josh Oberholtzer
    I made some mistakes in my past and got behind on child support wich I am now paying and any extra money I have gotten from anything has went to my 15 year old daughters mother now im hearing that I will not be getting a stimulus check and am wondering how this is fair in this time of crisis I have a family with two kids both who I filed on my 2019 taxes as married filling separately anyone have any idea of what will happen to the money my wife is entitled to as well as my kids because I think its very unfair to my family to have to struggle when everyone including my exs mother and entire family will be getting paid

  9. Hi Carl, thank you for this information! I could use a bit of clarity for a layman re: the statement “If you have been overpaid through the stimulus check, however, you do not have to return the excess. Section 6428(e)(1).” I’m specifically trying to understand, the term “overpaid” and the phrase “not have to pay back the excess”. What category of tax filers are typically overpaid (people that typically owe the IRS every year?)? And does “not having to pay back the excess” mean that there would be no impact to their 2020 taxes?

    My household owes the IRS several thousand each year and we haven’t filed 2019 yet. For the stimulus check, we are in the <$150k category (2 adults, 2 kids = $3400). We save all year in order to be able to pay what we owe. How much of a larger tax bill might I see come April 2021? It doesn't sound like it will be $3400 higher, but it also doesn't seem like it would would be our usual scenario either. How do we figure out how much more to save every month in order to be able to pay our 2020 taxes? Thanks!

    • Carl Smith says

      Darlene,

      I don’t have enough facts to tell you what to do. I hate to say it, but speak to your accountant (if you have one).

  10. I currently claim 0 deductions on my W2 because I just psychologically prefer getting a refund rather than writing a check at tax time. Would it be a good idea for me to change my W2 to claim all my deductions? Here’s what I am thinking, but not sure if it makes sense with how taxes work…

    W2 = 0 deductions
    I am owed $1200 because I overpaid
    Minus section 6428’s $1200
    I get $0

    W2 = 2 deductions
    I owe $2500 in taxes because I underpaid
    Minus section 6428’s $1200
    I get $0

    Except in scenario 2 I benefit by not “losing” the $1200 credit. Does it work like this?

    Thanks for clearing this up and providing everyone with a clear explanation! 🙂

    • Carl Smith says

      Mary,

      You have things a bit confused. I will assume that you are single with no dependents and your return last year (2019) reported AGI of no more than $75,000. If so, you will get a stimulus check of $1,200. This is true whether or not you overwithhold of underwithhold for 2020. If your AGI for 2020 is again no more than $75,000, the initial calculation of the credit on your 2020 return will also be $1,200, but you must subtract therefrom the stimulus check, so you will get no credit when you file your 2020 return.

  11. Kristen King says

    Perhaps I am overthinking this, but I would love a clarification – if for no reason other than to ease my mind… I am by no means a tax expert, and sometimes sifting through all the verbiage is a little thick. As a family, we utilize our annual tax refund for our son’s private school tuition, so the availability of those funds is very important to us.

    Will the receipt of this stimulus package basically void our tax refund? For example, we received approximately $2400 this year (from our 2019 form). Assuming that we get a similar amount next year, for the 2020 tax season, will this refund negate it? Should I assume that this stimulus payment is my normal tax refund payment, and save it as such for the tuition payment? I consider myself and my husband to be decently fiscally responsible, and I don’t appreciate the feeling of unease surrounding this payout. It honestly feels like the majority of the general public is unaware of the intricies of the package, and are only reacting to the flashing $$$ in front of their eyes.

    I hope tha allt makes sense. Thank you, in advance, for your feedback.

    • Carl Smith says

      The $2,400 you receive from the CARES Act legislation is a one-off check that will not affect or reduce the calculation of your usual refund.

      • I’m confused. In your article you stated, “You will then subtract from the credit due you on that return the amount of any stimulus check that you received in 2020.”

        Can you please elaborate and explain to me what I’m misunderstanding?

        • Carl Smith says

          Patrick,

          Forget the example I gave Kristen. Imagine, instead, that you and your wife are given a stimulus check of $2,400 this month. But, by the time you file a 2020 joint return, you report that you have two children who qualify for the child tax credit. The children generate a recovery rebate credit of $500 apiece under this legislation. You will calculate the 2020 recovery rebate credit as $3,400, but then subtract $2,400, since you already got the $2,400 in the stimulus check. So, the net credit you will report on your 2020 return will be $1,000.

  12. For those of us with little understanding of tax legislation, can you explain this in simple terms? I’ve seen people posting all over that this is simply a pre-payment on next year’s tax refunds, and people are planning to just save it.
    That’s not it, though, is it? This is an actual tax credit, built into next year’s taxes, and they’re just sending it out now, right? I can’t find a simple clarification anywhere, and clearly many other people can’t either as I’ve seen this confusion all over.
    Thank you for any light you can shed on this!

    • Carl Smith says

      Denise,

      Imagine that you are single and, without the CARES Act credit, you would have gotten a refund of $2,000 for 2019 and expect a refund of $3,000 for 2020. The legislation does two things: it creates a $1,200 credit that would increase your 2020 refund to $4,200, except that the legislation also tries to prepay you the $1,200 in mid-2020 by posting a credit to your 2019 account.

      Let’s assume that you have already filed your 2019 return and gotten your $2,000 reported refund. The advance check of $1,200 will be posted to your 2019 account and issued to you as a separate, additional refund for 2019. Then, when you file your 2020 return, you will calculate an initial credit of $1,200 but then have to subtract therefrom the amount of the check you already got. Thus, the actual refund you will get when you file your 2020 return will be $3,000 (i.e., $3,000 + ($1,200 credit – $1,200 advance check)).

  13. I have another scenario. My 19y/o son received his first w2 of $203 in wages for 2019. I did not file my 2019 taxes and he did not either. I did claim him as a dependent in 2018. I received my $1200 stimulus payment today.
    If he makes $15,000 in 2020 and files will he likely get an additional section 6428 credit then?

    Or. If I chose not to claim him for 2019 on my return and he files his 2019 return would he get the $1200 stimulus directly later this year?

    Trying to maximize either my dependent credit or his stimulus amount. Thanks

    • Carl Smith says

      Richard,

      It looks like, between different taxable year information, you are coming up with possible ways to get more credits in aggregate than Congress really intended. You may be right, but I don’t want to answer your questions, even if I knew the answers, since I am not here to help overdraw the Treasury.

      • Carl,
        Thank you for the respectful answer and I understand your rationale.
        I don’t intend to falsify any information, just trying to maximize my return/credits. Because I have yet to file my 2019 return (but I will soon) I’m looking at this as I would maximize any program out there.
        As far as “intent of the program”, I think an argument could be made that they did not intend to skip this group of young adults and they fell into a loophole.
        Not sure how I’ll proceed it rest assured I will comply with the rules.

  14. Dear Mr. Carl Smith,
    Thank you for sharing your insightful knowledge pertaining to the CARES Act credit. IRS is so overwhelmed with these extra works generating these stimulus payments and I could wait for my stimulus payment and receive it in 2021. Am I correct in thinking that when I file my 2020 Federal Income Tax in 2021 then I would receive the $1,200 stimulus credit with my tax refund or offset $1,200 from my balance due? Thanks in advance for your answer! May God prosper the works that you do…

    • Carl Smith says

      DKP,

      Thanks for your kind prayers. I hope you and your family stay well in this crisis.

      You are correct, but I just want to make sure your facts are right. Assuming that you are single or married filing separately and have adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less, you are due a $1,200 credit. If you did not get the credit in the form of a stimulus deposit or check during 2020, you will be able to report the credit on your 2020 return filed in 2021. The credit is treated as a “refundable credit” — essentially as if you had made a cash payment to the IRS of $1,200. So, if you are otherwise due a refund without the credit, you will get a refund in April 2021 that is $1,200 larger than you would have gotten without the credit. But, say you would have owed $1,000 on the return without the recovery rebate credit. In that case, $1,000 of the credit will be used to eliminate the balance and then only $200 would be refunded to you. That internal year offset is not prohibited by the CARES Act.

  15. Carl,
    I have read all the comments and I can’t believe I have an unusual question.
    It’s regarding splitting the $500 child credit with my ex. Do I do this or not? I don’t mind doing it, but will there be implications on my 2020 taxes that could hurt me if I do this?
    I claimed our daughter in 2019 as it was my year per our agreement, she claimed her in 2018.
    My ex-wife’s income is above the threshold to get any type of credit but she’s insisting that we split the $500.

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