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Sorry, you might actually get less money in a third stimulus check. Here's how

Now that a third stimulus check is coming into focus, some people may find they'll get less money this round. Others may not qualify at all. We explain.

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If the rules or your life circumstances has changed, your next stimulus check could feel the squeeze.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The next stimulus package could include some top-line proposals, like a third stimulus check of up to $1,400 per person that includes all dependents (not just kids), and new qualifications to get the payment. However, Democrats -- who hold the majority in the Senate and could force the $1.9 trillion bill through when the time comes -- are also looking for ways to limit the number of people who could benefit from a potential $1,400 per person check.

"I'm not cutting the size of the checks. They're going to be $1,400. Period. That's what the American people were promised," President Joe Biden said during a White House event on Friday. But he also said this: "We need to target that money. So, folks making $300,000 don't get any windfall." (Not everyone agrees.)

A larger per-person maximum mixed with new qualifications on income that could "target" a third stimulus check could result in lowering the total for some people this time around. Also, there may be additional life changes that could cause your third check to be reduced. We explain everything you need to know about what could lead to a smaller third stimulus check. This story was recently updated.

$1,400, but maybe not in the way you'd expect

For the first and second stimulus checks, Congress used a similar formula to determine payment amounts, using the same income limits and rate at which payments phase out. We have calculators to help you do the math for the second $600 payment and the first $1,200 check -- and even the third check, depending how things go.

Here are the income caps Congress set, using your adjusted gross income, or AGI, to receive the first and second payments in full:

  • Single taxpayer who makes less than $75,000
  • Head of household who makes less than $112,500
  • Married couple filing jointly who make less than $150,000

For the third check, however, Biden and Congress are reportedly considering reworking the formula to better direct the payments to people within a certain salary range, based on their yearly adjusted gross income.

According to the Washington Post, here are the income caps Congress is considering to receive a full third payment:

  • Single taxpayer who makes less than $50,000
  • Head of household who makes less than $75,000
  • Married couple filing jointly who make less than $100,000

What that could mean for you is that while you may have qualified for a first or second check, at the same income level, you may receive a much smaller payment this time -- if you qualify at all. Here's a chart looking at the differences dropping the upper income cap could make.

Upper income cap to receive 1st, 2nd and 3rd payment


AGI to phase out of first $1,200 payment AGI to phase out of second $600 payment AGI to phase out of third "targeted" $1,400 payment
Single tax filer $99,000 $87,000 78,000
Head of a household $146,000 $124,500 103,000
Married, filing jointly $198,000 $174,000 156,000

Congress is reportedly also considering changing the rate you would phase out of a payment, to exclude higher earners sooner from receiving a payment, Jeff Stein, a Washington Post reporter, tweeted. For the first and second checks, Congress set a phase-out rate of $50 for every $1,000 of income earned above the baseline. 

A change that would phase out how much you'd get at a rate of $100 instead of $50 for every $1,000 of income, for example, could quickly move some individuals and families out of range of a payment.

What if your income was more in 2019 or 2020 than in 2018?

Your adjusted gross income, or AGI, is a term normally used on the annual federal tax return to describe your total income, including assets (like stock sales, credits and deductions, or an inheritance) that fall outside your usual paycheck. You didn't get the first stimulus check, sent out after the CARES Act passed in March, if your AGI went above a certain income limit. There was an even lower number with the $600 second stimulus check, and Congress is weighing a cap for a third that could be lower still.

The first stimulus check was based on your 2018 or 2019 taxes, if you had filed them. The second check, approved by Congress in December, looked just at your 2019 taxes. 

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Because the third check timing could coincide with people filing their 2020 taxes, Congress is reportedly considering using your 2019 taxes for the third round of stimulus checks as well. That means if you got a new job or earned more money between 2018 and 2019 (congratulations), you may race toward the upper limit faster and receive only a partial check. 

Any child dependents you have, however, could still contribute to the total sum -- and the same could be true with a third check. Again, our second stimulus check calculator and third stimulus calculator can help estimate the sum.  Here's more about the relationship between your tax status and any possible stimulus check.

What if you have fewer dependents now than you previously did?

For the first two checks, age has been an important factor in how much stimulus money a household gets. Older adults are in many cases entitled to their own stimulus check. In the first round of direct payments, households were given an extra $500 for each "child dependent," which Congress defined as a legal minor who is 16 years old or younger. 

The IRS definition of a child dependent for your taxes (23 or under, and financially reliant on the tax filer) isn't the same one used for the first two stimulus checks.

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Kids grow up, and you could be out $600 per child.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For the third check, Biden has proposed opening up the definition to any dependent you can claim on your taxes. Biden is pitching a $1,400 payment to any qualifying dependent this time around. It was $600 for the second round.

Yet, if you don't have the same number of dependents, for whatever reason, you might not receive their share in your final check. For example, if someone has died, the IRS expected you to return any money you are paid on their behalf.

A calculation error could yield a smaller check at first

It happened with the first check and with the second. Clerical errors, deposit mistakes and complex rules might result in your household getting less money with the third stimulus check than you might be entitled to -- for you and your dependents. Or maybe you don't normally need to file taxes and as with the first two checks, you need to take an extra step to claim your money.

For the first two checks, for whatever reason, if an issue prevented you from receiving all or part of your stimulus money, you can claim it as a Recovery Rebate Credit this tax season. Without a new law in place, we don't know how those who would be due a third payment but didn't receive it will claim a missing check.

Has someone in your household recently died?

If your household receives a stimulus check that included a spouse or child dependent who died between your last tax filing and the receipt of the stimulus check, the IRS may have sent you a smaller sum if your tax filing status, deductions, credits or AGI changed. In some cases, the IRS has asked for the payment to be returned

Congress has not said how it will handle this if it approves the third payment.

Do you owe money on your taxes?

If so, the protections from the Consolidated Appropriations Act that prevented the IRS from garnishing your stimulus check for unpaid taxes do not apply to people who are claiming their missing stimulus checks on their tax returns. "If you are an eligible individual who has not yet received your full EIP and you have certain outstanding debts, some or all of your unpaid stimulus payment will be withheld to offset those debts," the Taxpayer Advocate Service said in a blog post.

The government service says the IRS is looking into this issue, however, to help taxpayers so that their stimulus payment isn't garnished. Congress and the IRS have not addressed how they will handle this situation with a third check.

For more information about stimulus money, here are top facts you need to know about stimulus checks and what else could be in Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus bill.