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When and why you'd have to return stimulus money to the IRS. Also, here's how

Certain circumstances might mean you have to send back all or part of a stimulus payment. Here's how to find out.

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

Sarah Tew/CNET

US tax season started on Feb. 12 -- that means if you're one of the millions of qualified Americans who never received a stimulus check, it's finally time to claim the missing amount on your federal tax returns. However, if you're on the other end of the scale and the IRS accidentally sent you money you weren't actually qualified to have, are you required to return it? We'll explain. And the same rules could apply to a third stimulus check, which is expected to complicate tax season

If you weren't supposed to receive a stimulus payment -- for example, you make more than the specified income limit -- then, yes, the IRS expects you to send the money back. When the first round of stimulus checks went out nearly a year ago, the IRS said that in certain cases it accidentally sent payments to people who weren't eligible. Because the second round of checks had to be pushed out so quickly, it's possible the same errors occurred again. Depending on how you got the stimulus payment -- by paper checkEIP card or direct deposit -- there are specific ways to go about returning it.

Here are several circumstances in which the IRS would want you to return a stimulus check you received in error, with the specifics on how to do it. It's also important to know your stimulus check rights and these key details about stimulus checks and taxes. (And here's what's happening with a potential third stimulus check, why the payment could be "targeted," how much money the new check could bring and when it might be approved.) This story was recently updated.

What if I get 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 you'd be required 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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What to do with 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 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 send it back

If any of the above situations pertains 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 a 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, check what happens now that the IRS has stopped sending second stimulus checks. 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.