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Stimulus checks: 11 must-know facts to clear up the confusion

Current answers on everything you need to know about the $1,400 stimulus checks, from how to see your status to where to turn in case of a problem.

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Stimulus checks are anything but simple, and once again, there's a lot to know.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Stimulus checks have a lot of moving parts you want to keep track of, from figuring out if you are eligible for a payment, how much money you qualify for and to what to do if you don't receive your full amount. It can be even more confusing if you receive Social Security benefits like SSI and SSDI or you run into problems of any kind with how the IRS is sending your payment.

Why is there so much to know about these third payments? The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that authorizes the checks reworked key details about the checks, including income limitsdependent benefits and a major expansion to the child tax credit (here's when the CTC payments could arrive and who's eligible). Some adjustments were also made to citizenship-based eligibility requirements. And with the IRS making payments in the middle of this year's tax season, your taxes play a big role in determining whether you'll get a check for the full amount, and when -- especially now that Tax Day 2020 is May 17.

We'll walk you through what to know, including guidance on how to claim any missing stimulus money and how to check your payment status with the IRS. (P.S.: Here's what's being said about a fourth stimulus check so far.) This story was recently updated. 

More than 30 million new stimulus checks could arrive 3 ways

Take a look at our stimulus check scorecard to keep tabs on how many payments the IRS sent out so far, and who's received them. The IRS continues to send out waves of payments through paper checks in the mail, or EIP prepaid debit cards and some still as direct deposits. Here's how to track a mailed payment

There's a third option as well. Social Security beneficiaries such as SSI, SSDI and recipients of veterans benefits could get their stimulus payments as a Direct Express card. Social Security recipients are starting to get their checks the week of April 5.

'Plus-up' payments

If the IRS underestimated the size of your check, you could receive a "plus-up" payment. For example, if your income was lower in 2020 than it was 2019 of if you added new child or dependent on their 2020 tax return, you might qualify for more money than the IRS sent you if it calculated your payment based on your 2019 taxes. These ongoing payments started with those with those received their checks in March.

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Hold-ups will happen, and finding help may not be easy

Any problem with stimulus check delivery, or even a calculation error, could keep you from getting your check. For example, if you moved, you need to make sure the IRS has your new address, not only the USPS. And depending on which tax year the IRS uses when processing your stimulus payment, any difference could mean you only receive a partial payment, and you have to wait for the rest. 

One example would be if you gained a dependent in 2020 -- including a new baby -- but the IRS bases your stimulus check on your 2019 tax return. (Read more below for which tax year the IRS will use for you.)

Unfortunately, solving a problem with your payment isn't so straightforward. With the first check, the IRS hired 3,500 new telephone representatives to take your call and published two help numbers. By the third check, the IRS is telling people not to call. We share some suggestions for detangling an issue.

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Being able to receive stimulus money for dependents of any age may feel like an extra gift this year.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Your 'current' tax return could make a huge difference in your payment amount

Tax season and the timing of a third stimulus check overlap, especially now that the Tax Day deadline has moved to May 17. If you submitted your 2020 tax return, but the IRS didn't process it yet (how to know), it will base your total on income from either your 2019 tax return (or even earlier), whichever it has on hand when it determines the size of your payment. If you didn't file yet, you'll be paid based on 2019 taxes.

Depending on your situation, using predominantly 2019 taxes could benefit you or cause the IRS to owe you money, if your situations changed, like if you gained a dependent who counts for $1,400 more. (Or it may have no effect). If you qualify for the full $1,400 based on your 2020 taxes, but your check total was lower because the IRS based it on your 2019 taxes, you'd have to claim the difference, possibly when you file in 2022, if not sooner. Here are situations in which you'd be expected to return stimulus money to the IRS.

If you're a nonfiler such as an SSDI or SSI recipient, the IRS will base your check size on information it has on hand. You may need to file a simple 2020 tax return to claim dependents the IRS may not know about -- here's more information on what nonfilers should do.

More dependents are included this time

The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill opens the qualifications to roughly 13.5 million more dependents for a third stimulus payment -- for $1,400 apiece -- than the first two payments did by expanding the definition of a dependent. With the new check, any dependent -- child or adult -- would count toward a payment. With the first check and the second, Congress included children age 16 and under but excluded dependents 17 and older.

There's a strict income limit for the third stimulus payment

The third stimulus check comes with a $1,400-per-person maximum. To "target" or restrict the third check to lower- and middle-income households, the legislation includes eligibility rules that exclude individuals and families at the highest income levels. An individual with an AGI (adjusted gross income) of at least $80,000 a year would hit the payment cutoff, as would a head of household earning $120,000 and a couple filing jointly with an AGI of $160,000.

However, any dependent a taxpayer claims could qualify for a $1,400 payment. But unlike the first two stimulus payments, people above the hard upper limit wouldn't be able to get a partial check by having dependents. Here's how the stimulus check formula would work. If you want to see for yourself, try our stimulus calculator for the third check.

Stimulus check income limits


Full $1,400 per person maximum (based on AGI) Not eligible (based on AGI)
Single taxpayer Less than $75,000 $80,000 or more
Head of household Less than $112,500 $120,000 or more
Married couple filing jointly Less than $150,000 $160,000 or more

Some people don't qualify for a stimulus check at all

The strict income cap Congress has set for the third check means you could quickly be disqualified from receiving a check or receiving much less than the potential amount the House and Senate agreed to. We explore that here, including changes in your personal life that may have an effect, such as if you got a raise in the past year or if you claim fewer dependents this time around. Here's who might not qualify for a new stimulus check.

Many households are getting a much larger payment this time

A $1,400 maximum total per person is an obvious way your household would see more money from a third check (compared to $1,200 maximum for the first and $600 for the second). But there's more to it than that. Since the upper limit for the second check was $600 per adult with an extra $600 per child dependent (according to the IRS' formula), more people hit the upper income limit for receiving a second payment. And that means they didn't actually qualify to get any stimulus money at all.

A third stimulus check makes more groups of people eligible to receive money (namely noncitizens who pay taxes) and bring a larger total check to qualified individuals and their families, including $1,400 payments to dependents. A change in your circumstances can also mean you qualify for more money this time. Here are other ways a third stimulus check could put more money in your pocket.

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Stimulus check money could add up fast -- as long as you're qualified to receive it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Eligibility guidelines have expanded for this check

While the hard income cap will disqualify millions, the third stimulus check also extends qualifications to dependents of any age. That includes college students, older adult relatives and dependents of all ages with disabilities -- not just those under 17 years old.

The second change to eligibility includes all "mixed-status households" with one or more family members who aren't US citizens. An example would be parents who aren't US citizens, but their US-born children are. The second stimulus checks made families with one US-citizen spouse eligible. However, people who are nonresident aliens won't qualify for a stimulus check in the third round.

You will be able to claim missing stimulus money

Although stimulus checks are well on their way, the IRS will have until Dec. 31, 2021, to automatically send the payments. That leeway would allow for the agency to potentially fix any direct deposit errors, calculation problems or issues including the right amount of money for dependents. Any discrepancy between 2019 and 2020 taxes could also be claimed in this time period, presumably.

It's also likely that any issues that remain after this deadline could be resolved with taxpayers and non-filers alike claiming any missing money as a Recovery Rebate Credit in 2022. You might be able to solve a specific missing money problem sooner by requesting a payment trace with the IRS.

For more information about stimulus checks, other funding in the new stimulus package, including a child tax credit of up to $3,600 per child, how to estimate your third stimulus check and what we know about a fourth stimulus check so far.