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When do you have to return stimulus check money to the IRS? Here's what to know

Some who received a stimulus check may be required to send back some or all of the payment, depending on specific circumstances. Here's how to find out if you're in this group.

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We'll tell you how to know if you need to send back a stimulus check overpayment to the IRS.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Millions of dollars with the third stimulus checks have already arrived for individuals and families who qualify for the payments, with "plus-up payments" going out to those who are eligible for a larger check based on their 2020 tax returns. But what if instead the IRS has sent you stimulus money you don't actually qualify for? In some cases, you might be expected to return the amount you were overpaid. (This will go for this year's child tax credit, too). 

We'll help you understand if this situation applies to you, for any of the three stimulus checks you received in 2020 or this year. For example, with the first stimulus check, the IRS accidentally sent out payments to people who weren't eligible. If you received a check in error, there are specific ways to send the money back, depending on the payment method used -- paper checkEIP card or direct deposit.

Read on for details to know. For more information, here are new ways to save on health care costs, and what we know about student loan debt forgiveness. Brush up on the situation with a fourth stimulus check, and educate yourself on all the confusing child tax credit rules, including how much money you could get. This story has been updated.

What if you got stimulus money that you didn't qualify for with the $1,400 check?

The income cutoff to receive a third stimulus check is $80,000 for an individual taxpayer, $120,000 for a head of household and $160,000 for a married couple that files jointly. If you make more than that amount and still got a payment, the IRS will likely expect you to return all or some of it. 

However, if you made more in 2020 than you did in 2019 but you get a stimulus check before filing your taxes, you won't be expected to return that money. You can use our third stimulus check calculator to estimate how much you'll get.

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Why you may need to return some or all of the stimulus payment you received

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:

  • You received a check for someone who has died -- but there's some nuance here (more below).
  • You don't have a Social Security number.
  • You're considered a "nonresident alien" without a US citizen spouse. 
  • You're a noncitizen who files federal taxes.
  • Your adjusted gross income exceeds the limit; for example, $87,000 for a single taxpayer with the second check.
  • You're claimed as a dependent on someone else's taxes (this applies to the first and second checks).
  • You received the same payment round twice.

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

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Was your stimulus check total calculated correctly?

Sarah Tew/CNET

What to know if someone in your household 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.

For the third check, it depends on which tax return the IRS uses. If it uses your 2019 tax return, you'll likely get to keep the amount you received for the person who has died.

If you already cashed or deposited the stimulus money, here's how the IRS wants you to return it

If you've already cashed or deposited your check, here's what to do.

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 -- that depends on which state you live in.

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Make sure you know if you got the right amount.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you never cashed or deposited the paper check, here's what the IRS wants you to do

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.

What to know if you didn't receive any stimulus check money at all

If you were eligible to receive the first or second stimulus check and it never arrived, you'll need to claim it as a Recovery Credit Rebate on your 2020 taxes this year, even if you don't usually file taxes. Alternatively, you may have to start an IRS payment trace.

If you didn't receive the third check, or the amount is less than you expected, the IRS may send you a plus-up payment after it receives your 2020 tax return.

You may need to consult additional information if you:

To stay updated on the latest, here's everything to know about stimulus check delivery. If you're having stimulus check problems, do this instead of calling the IRS. And here's what to know about other ways you could get money with your tax refund.