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Does the IRS owe you stimulus check money? This is what you have to do to get it

You can start preparing now to file for any missing stimulus check payment during tax season 2020, but using the IRS' Recovery Rebate Credit it isn't simple. Here's how it works.

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There are some important things you need to know about claiming your missing stimulus check money on your taxes.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're one of the millions of people who their never got their first or second stimulus checks, or who only got a partial payment, what should you do? Maybe there's been an error, you're missing money for your dependents, or part of your check was mistakenly garnished. Maybe you didn't know you qualified, or are a tax nonfiler and needed to take an extra step. The IRS will let you claim the amount you're entitled to when you file your 2020 tax return, using the Recovery Rebate Credit.

We strongly recommend you get your paperwork in order before the IRS starts processing payments on Feb. 12. Then, file your taxes early if you can, and sign up for direct deposit if you haven't already. The first step to your Recovery Rebate Credit is to confirm your payment status online through the IRS. If you see a confusing messages, or it appears there's been an error, you may be a candidate to claim missing money.

Note that you won't get a separate check if you apply for the Recovery Rebate Credit on your taxes. Instead, the IRS would either increase the size of your total tax refund or lower the amount of taxes you owe. In some cases, you may have to initiate a payment trace on your stimulus check rather than use the credit. We lay out what you should know. And here are details on a third stimulus check, including how much money you could get and how fast it might come. This story updated recently.

How do I file a stimulus payment claim on my taxes?

If you belong to one of the groups outlined below or estimated your total for the first stimulus payment or used our calculator to get an idea of your payment for the second and think the IRS didn't send the full amount you qualified for, you have another chance this year to claim missing stimulus check money through an IRS Recovery Rebate Credit.

You'll file for the credit when you do your federal tax returns this year. The IRS said it'll start processing 2020 tax returns on Feb. 12, and federal tax returns will be due April 15. (In 2020, the IRS extended the deadline to July 15 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic). 

While the IRS doesn't have final instructions yet for every personal situation (more on these below), the agency does say that people who file taxes can use what will be called the Recovery Rebate Credit on the 2020 Form 1040 or Form 1040-SR to claim a catch-up payment. The IRS will provide a Recovery Rebate Credit Worksheet to help you work out if you're missing a payment and for how much.

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

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

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If I'm a nonfiler who isn't not usually required to submit a federal tax return, what should I do?

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. Those 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.

If you meet the requirements, you can get starting with your claim using the IRS' free tax-filing service.

What if money is missing on behalf of my child dependent?

Under the CARES Act, 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 receive the payment in December of last year. You can use our stimulus check calculator to get an idea of how much you may be owed.

As with the nonfilers, if you missed the deadline, the IRS said you can claim the payment on your 2020 federal tax return this year, by filing a 2020 Form 1040 or 1040-SR.

In the second stimulus check, 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.

My 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 the first check is for overdue child support. You can't have your second check seized for overdue support. However, if the parents are separated or divorced, only the spouse who owes child support should have the check seized. 

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 said it is 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.

I used CNET's stimulus calculator and think I got the wrong payment from the IRS. Now what?

Finally, if you use our first stimulus check calculator or second payment calculator and find you may have qualified for a larger payment than you received, you can use the IRS Get My Payment tool to see if a check has been approved. If the IRS is waiting for information from you it needs to make your payment, you might still be able to claim your money this year as a Recovery Rebate Credit.

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There are still unclaimed stimulus checks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What should I do if I'm a US citizen living abroad, live in a US territory or are not a citizen?

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 through the various eligibility scenarios along with what to do if you qualify but didn't get a check.

People who are incarcerated aren't excluded from receiving stimulus money

Since April, 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 who 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 do not 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 payment, see our guide to the first round of checks. We also have an idea of how much money you could get in the next stimulus check, the current situation is with a third stimulus payment and all the benefits the next stimulus package could bring.