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Claim missing stimulus money on your tax return ASAP. Here's how

Tax Day has been delayed this year, but if you're one of the millions of people missing stimulus check money from the first two payments, now's the time to file for a Recovery Rebate Credit on your 2020 return. We've got everything you need to know.

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If the IRS owes you money from the first two stimulus checks, you can get it by filing a recovery Rebate Credit.

Angela Lang/CNET

The IRS has now sent out more than 161 million stimulus checks with the third round of payments for up to $1,400 per person. DependentsSSI and SSDI recipients and veterans receiving VA benefits are among the groups who should have qualified to receive a check this month. While more payments are on the way, individuals and families are still missing money from the first or second stimulus checks and now have less than a month left to claim those funds.

The deadline to file your taxes has been extended to May 17, and you'll need to file a Recovery Rebate Credit on your 2020 return if you need to claim any of the $1,200 or $600 from the previous two checks -- even if you're a nonfiler who doesn't usually have to file taxes. After filing, you could receive your money as a larger tax refund or a smaller tax bill if you owe any money. You should also consider signing up for direct deposit to get your refund back faster. However, be aware that the IRS could garnish some or all of your refund to cover outstanding debts.

Below, we'll explain everything you need to know about starting the Recovery Rebate Credit claim process. If you think you're missing money from the third check, here's what you need to know about what could hold up your check, how to report a payment problem and when to request an IRS payment trace. Additionally, here's what we know about a fourth stimulus check and when you could start getting your 2021 child tax credit, if you and your children qualify. Here are other tax credits that could bring you more money this year, and new savings on health insurance and more. This story was recently updated.

File for a Recovery Rebate Credit on your tax return to claim missing money. Here's how

If you think the IRS owes you a full or partial stimulus check for any reason (and there are plenty of scenarios below), you have one more chance this year to claim missing stimulus check money by filing a Recovery Rebate Credit as part of your 2020 taxes. It may be that your check total doesn't match your estimated total for the first stimulus payment or the second check (calculate that here), or maybe there was a delivery error, or an accidental garnishment, or a dependent was left out, like a new baby not represented on last year's taxes.

To start the Recovery Rebate Credit claim process, first confirm your payment status online through the IRS. If you see a confusing message or a possible error, you may be a candidate for a rebate or a payment trace

You need to file for the credit when you submit your federal tax returns this year. The IRS started processing 2020 tax returns on Feb. 12, and federal tax returns will be due May 17 due to an extension the IRS approved. 

File for your missing money from the first and/or second stimulus on the 2020 Form 1040 or Form 1040-SR. The tax return instructions include a worksheet to figure out the amount of any Recovery Rebate Credit for which you're eligible, according to the IRS. However, this worksheet requires you to know the amounts of your stimulus payments. Again, CNET's stimulus check calculators for the second and first payments can provide an estimate.

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To start filing for a partial check rebate, you'll need the IRS' calculated amount from the letter the IRS sent confirming your payment. This was called Notice 1444 for the first payment and Notice 1444-B for the second payment.

If you file for the credit and are owed money, you'll either see the amount of your tax refund increased or the amount of tax you owe lowered, depending on the amount of stimulus money you're eligible to receive

Claim missing stimulus money, even if you don't usually file taxes. Here's how

Last fall, the IRS sent letters to 9 million Americans who may have qualified for a payment but perhaps didn't know they needed to register to claim it. This group -- which the IRS categorizes as "nonfilers" -- includes people who didn't file a tax return in 2018 or 2019, such as older adults, retirees, SSDI or SSI recipients and individuals with incomes less than $12,200. People in this group needed to file a claim using the Non-Filers tool by Nov. 21. The IRS said if you missed the deadline you can claim the payment through the Recovery Rebate Credit when you file a 2020 federal income tax return: 

When you file a 2020 Form 1040 or 1040SR you may be eligible for the Recovery Rebate Credit. Save your IRS letter -- Notice 1444 Your Economic Impact Payment -- with your 2020 tax records. You'll need the amount of the payment in the letter when you file in 2021.

That means even if you don't usually file taxes, you will have to do so this year to claim any missing stimulus money. If you meet the requirements, you can get started with your claim using the IRS' free tax-filing service. We have more detailed instructions for how nonfilers can file a tax return to claim missing stimulus money here.

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The IRS didn't send me the right amount of stimulus money. How can I claim the rest?

If you use CNET's first stimulus check calculator or second payment calculator and find you may have qualified for a larger stimulus payment than you received, you'll likely be able to claim your money this year as a Recovery Rebate Credit.

Unfortunately, the IRS Get My Payment tool is no longer available for the first and second stimulus payments, so you won't be able to find your information there.

I didn't get the Recovery Rebate amount I expected. What happened? 

If you claim a Recovery Rebate Credit on your tax return, the IRS will determine your eligibility and the amount of the credit based on two things: your 2020 tax return, and the amounts of any stimulus payments issued previously (if you got them). 

If there is a mistake with the amount on line 30 of form 1040 or 1040-SR (where you claim the credit), the IRS will calculate the correct amount and process the return, according to an April 5 news release. This might delay the processing of your return, and the IRS will send you a letter explaining any changes. Some common reasons why the IRS may need to correct your credit are:

  • You were claimed as a dependent on another person's 2020 tax return
  • You did not provide a Social Security number valid for employment
  • Your qualifying child was age 17 or older on January 1, 2020, and therefore not eligible for the first two payments
  • Math errors relating to calculating your adjusted gross income and any payments already received

If you think the IRS sent you the wrong amount, the agency recommends reading its Recovery Rebate FAQ page before contacting them. 

Here's why your tax refund or missing stimulus money could have been seized 

Stimulus checks are technically considered a tax credit, no matter how you get them. Typically, the IRS can reduce a taxpayer's refund to repay outstanding debts like past-due child support, unpaid student loans and certain other federal and state liabilities. The CARES Act stated that the first stimulus check could not be garnished for these purposes, except for overdue child support. 

The December stimulus package went a step further and protected the second round of stimulus checks from all garnishment, including child support. However, it also limited that exception only to advance payments, and retroactively revised the CARES Act's rules as well -- meaning that your Recovery Rebate Credit that arrives on your tax refund for missing stimulus money is treated differently from the stimulus money that arrived for others in the mail, according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service, an independent organization within the IRS.

For the third check, because of the way it was passed, it's open to garnishment from private debt collectors, but not child support payments.

Bottom line: If you're eligible for a stimulus payment through a Recovery Rebate Credit, but you have certain outstanding debts, some or all of your credit could be withheld to pay those debts, the Taxpayer Advocate Service wrote in a blog post.

What to do if your stimulus check was mistakenly garnished

Although there are a few cases where the federal government or a debt collector could seize your first payment to cover any outstanding debt, in general, if you qualify for a check, it's yours to spend or save as you want. One area where the federal government can garnish your first stimulus check is for overdue child support. However, if the parents are separated or divorced, only the spouse who owes child support should have the check seized. You can't have your second check seized for overdue support if it was sent as an advance check (see above).

According to the IRS, the parent who doesn't owe child support should receive their portion of the first payment without having to take action. If you haven't received your check, the IRS says it's working to send out the missing payments. While you don't have much recourse to appeal IRS decisions, you can also try the Non-Filers tool to create a record of your claim.

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There are still unclaimed stimulus checks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Claim missing stimulus money for your child dependents. Here's how

Under the CARES Act passed in March 2020, each qualifying child dependent -- those 16 years old and younger -- was eligible for a $500 check. But some people's payments were short $500 for each eligible dependent. If you claimed it by Nov. 21 of 2020, you should have received the payment in December 2020. 

As with the nonfilers, if you missed that deadline, the IRS says you can claim the payment on your 2020 federal tax return this year, by filing a 2020 Form 1040 or 1040-SR. Use our stimulus check calculator to get an idea of how much you may be owed.

In the second stimulus check, which went out in December, children under 17 were each allotted $600 as part of the family total.

Note that in a few cases, where parents are separated or divorced and share joint custody of a dependent, each parent can get a $500 or $600 payment per eligible child, for the first and second checks, respectively. So you may not even be aware you're eligible for the payment to begin with.

If you're a US citizen living abroad or a noncitizen, here's what to do

The IRS has rules that set the payment eligibility guidelines for US citizens who live abroad and non-US citizens who work in the US -- along with spouses of nonresident aliens. We have a guide that walks you through the various eligibility scenarios along with what to do if you qualify but didn't get a check. (And here's how your status might change in a third check for mixed-status families.)

Incarcerated people can receive a stimulus check, according to a court ruling 

Since April 2020, when it first started sending payments, the IRS has gone back and forth on whether those who are in US jails and prisons qualify for a stimulus check.

A ruling last fall by a federal judge in California, however, seemed to have settled the question for now and required the IRS to contact those incarcerated and let them know they can file a claim for a stimulus check. The deadline to file a claim in 2020 -- either through the mail or online -- has passed. As with others who are missing a payment, the IRS said if you didn't receive a payment by Dec. 31, 2020, you may be able to claim it this year by filing a 2020 Form 1040 or 1040-SR.

For everything to know about the first stimulus payment, see our guide to the first round of checks. Also, here's how much money you could get with the third check and what we know so far about a potential fourth stimulus check