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Sorry, you may have to return your stimulus money to the IRS. Here's why and how

For some people, specific circumstances might put them in the uncomfortable position of having to send back some or all of a stimulus payment. Here's how to find out if you're one of them.

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Any extra stimulus money you received may not be yours to keep.

Sarah Tew/CNET

With tax season here, now's the time to file for any stimulus money you never received with the first two checks when you file your tax return. But what if you're in a different boat and you received stimulus money you didn't actually qualify for -- will the IRS require you to return in? We'll help answer your question, especially since the same rules could apply to a third stimulus check, complicating this tax season.

Some qualification details exclude many people from receiving stimulus checks. For example, there's always an income cutoff for each stimulus payment and if your income exceeds the specified amount, the IRS expects you to return the money. With the first stimulus check, the IRS accidentally sent out payments to people who weren't eligible. If you were one of those people -- or you received a second check in error -- there are specific ways to return the payment, depending on if you received a paper checkEIP card or direct deposit.

Here are some instances when the IRS would expect you to return a stimulus payment that you weren't eligible for, with details on how to do it. You'll also want to brush up on the third stimulus check details, as a new check will likely be 'targeted,' yet qualify more groups of people this time. Also, here's how much money you could potentially get and when it could arrive. This story was updated recently.

What if I receive more money than I should from the third stimulus check?

While a third stimulus check hasn't been approved quite yet, we do know that it could be up to $1,400 per person. We also know that the income cutoff to receive a payment at all would be $100,000 for an individual taxpayer, $150,000 for a head of household and $200,000 for a married couple who files jointly. If you make more than that amount and still receive a third stimulus payment, if and when it's approved, the IRS will likely expect you to return the difference. 

However, if you made more in 2020 than you did in 2019, but you get a stimulus check before you file your taxes, you may not be expected to return that money, according to the latest proposal (PDF). We'll update this with final rules when and if a bill passes. Meanwhile, you can use our third stimulus check calculator to estimate how much you could get.

Instances where the IRS expects you to return your stimulus payment

The government determines who is and isn't eligible to receive a stimulus check based on several factors. If you fall into any of these categories and received a stimulus check, it was likely by error:

Here's more information about who didn't qualify for the $600 stimulus check.

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Can I keep a stimulus payment for someone who's died?

If you received a payment for someone who died in 2019 or earlier, the IRS says you should return the entire payment "unless it was made to joint filers and one spouse is still living." If you're the living spouse, you should return half the payment -- just not more than $1,200 in all. 

However, if the check is issued in both your name and your deceased spouse's name (and therefore you can't deposit the money), you'll need to return the whole amount to the IRS. After the agency processes the returned payment, it will issue a new check with the correct amount for you.

If you've already cashed or deposited the stimulus payment, here's how to return the money

1. Use a personal check or money order and make the check payable to the US Treasury. You'll also need to write 2020 EIP and include the taxpayer identification number or Social Security number of the person whose name is on the check. 

2. On a separate piece of paper, let the IRS know why you're sending the check back.

3. Mail the check to the appropriate IRS location -- it depends on which state you live in.

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While you're still waiting on your check to arrive, you can track it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you never cashed or deposited the paper check, here's how to return it

If any of the above situations pertain to you, you may need to send your stimulus check back. Here's how to do it for each scenario, per the IRS.

1. Write "VOID" in the endorsement section on the back of the check.

2. Do not bend, paper clip or staple the check.

3. On a separate piece of paper, let the IRS know why you're sending the check back.

4. Mail the check to the appropriate IRS location -- it varies depending on which state you live in.

Never received any stimulus payment at all? Here's what to do

If you're among the more than 100 million people who were eligible to receive the second $600 stimulus check and it never arrived, you'll likely need to claim it as a Recovery Credit Rebate on your 2020 taxes, even if you don't usually file taxes. Alternatively, you may have to start an IRS payment trace.

If you aren't signed up for direct deposit with the IRS, now's a good time, as a third stimulus check is on the table. To do so, you'll need to add your banking information when you file your 2020 taxes this year. We also encourage you to file your taxes as early as possible this year because of stimulus checks. Remember the deadline to file is April 15, but you can file an extension.

To stay updated on the latest stimulus check news, here's when the IRS could start sending a third payment. If you're having stimulus check problems, do this instead of calling the IRS. Also, here's what's happening right now with a potential third stimulus payment.