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How the IRS decides the size of your stimulus check: Using this formula

Why did you get what you did in the first check? And what might you get in a second check, whenever it comes? Here's how to tell.

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Do you know how the IRS counts up your stimulus check money? It isn't easy.

Angela Lang/CNET

If you're curious how the IRS might calculate the size of your next stimulus check, or if you're puzzled how Congress settled on the amount for your first direct payment, we can help you work out the math. For example, did you know it's possible for a married couple who maxes out the income limit to still receive a $400 check? Or that child support situations complicate how much money you could get

It isn't always clear why you may have received a check that's larger or smaller than you expected. But understanding the system can help you decide if you need to appeal to the IRS in the case of a calculation error.

As negotiations for another stimulus bill lurch through the Nov. 3 election to a conclusion, we wanted to demystify the stimulus payment process, from figuring out which priority group you might be in to explaining the murky world of qualifications and how they could change. Here, we'll help explain how the IRS works out totals that can be far greater or far less than $1,200 per individual. You can also try CNET's stimulus check calculator for an estimate of what your payment could be. This story was recently updated.

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How does the IRS calculate your stimulus check amount?

For most people, the answer is "your federal tax return." Specifically, the IRS starts with the adjusted gross income you put on your 2019 federal tax returns if you filed them or otherwise your 2018 returns. (If you don't typically file taxes, here's what you need to know.)

If you're an individual US citizen, head of a household or part of a married couple filing jointly, the most money you could make in a year (your AGI) and still get a check looked something like this, according to the CARES Act:

  • $99,000 for eligible individuals (up to $1,200)
  • $136,500 for head of household filers (up to $1,200)
  • $198,000 for married couples filing joint returns (up to $2,400)

But there are two important facts you also need to know: First, at a certain "income cap," the IRS reduces the total you can get by $1 for each $20 of income you have over the cap. So if you're a single person filing alone and your AGI is less than $75,000, you'd likely get the full $1,200. As your AGI goes up, your check would get smaller.

Second, these numbers don't factor in child dependents. The IRS would include a $500 payment for each qualifying child 16 years or younger that you claimed on your tax return, which means you could still get more -- or less -- than the per-person or per-couple limit depending on your income.

When the IRS put it all together for the first payment, the agency started with the largest amount you'd be eligible to receive ($1,200 per single taxpayer or $2,400 for joint), added $500 for each qualifying child and then reduced the total possible sum according to your AGI.

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Washington continues to work on the details or a new stimulus package.

Angela Lang/CNET

It's a little like starting a test with a perfect 100 points and subtracting every point you "miss," rather than starting with zero points and adding them all up at the end of the test.

But in this case, the dependents you name can start you at a higher value, say 110 points in our classroom example. So by the time you subtract "points," you may still have more than people who don't have dependents, even if your AGI is high.

That's why it's possible you could be out of range for a payment based on your AGI and still receive a check for eligible dependents. Still confused? We don't blame you. Maybe these scenarios will help ballpark how much you could get. Also see below for even more sums.

Stimulus check totals: The IRS formula in action

Here, we want to show you the calculation at work, and how the math changes for people who claim dependents. 

Remember that an individual can qualify for a stimulus check of up to $1,200, a married couple who files taxes jointly can get up to $2,400, and the first check threw in an extra $500 per qualified child dependent. Note that a head of household is someone who files taxes individually and has at least one dependent. People who are considered single filers claim no dependents on their taxes, only themselves, which is why this group isn't included in the chart below. 

These figures are based on the rules set out for the first check, worked out using CNET's stimulus check calculator -- they don't include variables for a second check and are estimates only. There are a lot of secondary qualifications that could determine your final sum. If the amount below looks higher than what you received though, you may need to investigate a catch-up payment from the IRS for dependents who were skipped in the first check.

Stimulus check calculations with dependents (First check)


Head of household Married couple, filing jointly
Estimated total with:

AGI of $40,000 and no dependents $1,200 $2,400
AGI of $115,000 and no dependents $1,075 $2,400
AGI of $200,000 and no dependents Not eligible Not eligible



AGI of $40,000 and 1 dependent $1,700 $2,900
AGI of $115,000 and 1 dependent $1,575 $2,900
AGI of $200,000 and 1 dependent Not eligible $400



AGI of $40,000 and 2 dependents $2,200 $3,400
AGI of $115,000 and 2 dependents $2,075 $3,400
AGI of $200,000 and 2 dependents Not eligible $900

What does this mean for your second payment?

If and when Congress does approve a new economic stimulus package with a second round of checks, the size of your payment could largely depend on any new rules that affect dependents, even if the $1,200 and $2,400 caps stay the same.

Right now there are two proposals to cast a wider net for dependents. One would allot more money for children (e.g., $1,000 instead of $500), and the other would include more dependents (e.g. $500 for college students and older parents who live with you). 

Both would potentially increase your family's overall pool. Remember, the bigger the sum a family starts with, the bigger the check they are likely to receive after the IRS makes its deductions based on your AGI. 

Again, here's a comparison of what the difference could look like for some families -- with varying AGIs and types of dependents -- if the rules change one of two ways. In that story we also explain different ways you could see more, or even less, money on a second check.

For now we keep our eyes on Washington. For more, see how SSDI recipients and checksolder adults and retirees, and people who aren't US citizens or Americans who don't live in the US can also qualify.