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Does the IRS owe you stimulus check money? This is what you have to know

During tax season 2020, you can file for any missing stimulus check payment you're owed using the IRS' Recovery Rebate Credit, but 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

What do you do 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? Maybe there's been an error of some sort, you're missing money for your dependents, or some of your check was mistakenly garnished. Maybe you didn't know you qualified, or are a tax nonfiler and needed to fill out an extra step. Either way, the IRS has a system in place for you to claim the amount owed to you when you file your 2020 tax return: It's called the Recovery Rebate Credit.

Although the IRS won't start processing payments until Feb. 12, we strongly recommend you get your paperwork in order now. When the time comes, file your taxes early if you can, and sign up for direct deposit if you haven't already. The first step for working out your Recovery Rebate Credit is to confirm your payment status online through the IRS. If you can't figure out the confusing messages the IRS tool is telling you, or it appears there's been an error of some sort, you may be a candidate for claiming missing money.

Note that the IRS won't send you a separate check if you claim your money on your taxes. It would, however, 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 instead. We break down what you need to know about filing for a Recovery Rebate Credit here. And here are details on a third stimulus check, including how much money you could get and how fast it might come. This story was recently updated.

How do I file a claim for a stimulus payment owed to me?

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

Now playing: Watch this: Second stimulus checks: Everything you need to know

If you're a nonfiler who isn't not usually required to submit a federal tax return, here's what to 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.

Is money missing on behalf of your 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.

Was your stimulus check mistakenly garnished or seized?

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.

If you used our stimulus calculator and think you got the wrong payment total, do this

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 is in the works. 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.


There are still unclaimed stimulus checks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What should you do if you're 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 in jail or prison 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.