What to do if you think your stimulus check is for the wrong amount


The IRS has sent 88.1 million stimulus payments to households across the country, totaling $158 billion, according to the numbers from April 17 (the most recent available). That's more than half of the 171 million payments expected to go out between now and September. And more Americans should be receiving their money soon, since the first round of paper checks has gone out, too.

While many taxpayers have had trouble finding out when their payments are coming, others have reported receiving the wrong amount. That includes people who have received less money than they expected, as well as some who think they may have received too much.

If you fall into either category, here are reasons why that might be the case and what you may be able to do about it.

You may have earned too much

The government is basing the amount you receive on the adjusted gross income, or your income minus certain deductions, that you reported on your most recent taxes, either for 2018 or 2019. So if you received less than the full credit amount, there's a good chance it's because you earned more than the limit during the most recent year you filed taxes for.

Individuals who earn up to $75,000 annually are eligible for the full individual payment of $1,200. If you make more than $75,000 but less than $98,000, you're eligible for a reduced payment. And if you earn more than $98,000, it's likely you won't qualify for any payment. If you are married filing jointly, those income limits and payment amounts double.

Parents are also eligible to receive up to $500 for each dependent child they can normally claim the child tax credit for.

"I got a call from a client, and their stimulus check ended up being an oddball number, and they didn't realize that they were in the phaseout income level," says Carolyn McClanahan, a certified financial planner and the director of financial planning for Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida. "Their income was over the $75,000 and so they got a check, but it wasn't as big as they were expecting."

If you haven't received your payment and also haven't filed your 2019 taxes yet, experts say it's in your interest to run the numbers and figure out if you should file quickly or wait.

"If you are not eligible based on your 2018 tax return because your income is too high but your 2019 income is lower, then file 2019 taxes now and include direct deposit info on your return," says Erika Safran, a certified financial planner and the founder of Safran Wealth Advisors in New York. "If you were eligible for 2018 but 2019 income is too high, then hold off on filing 2019 taxes."

Your kids are too old or too young

On top of the up to $1,200 payment per adult, you're also eligible to receive up to $500 for every child you have under 17. To qualify, your child must meet the same eligibility guidelines for the child tax credit.

If you had a child or got married since you filed your last return, your new baby and any joint filing status won't immediately be taken into account for your stimulus payment. However, you will be able to eventually claim that money when you file next year.

Say, for example, you had a baby since your last tax filing. "Well, the IRS based [their stimulus payment] on two single individuals with no dependent children, so they were entitled to get more money," says Henry Grzes, lead manager for tax practice and ethics at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. "They'll get that additional amount at the time they file their 2020 return."

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Since the child tax credit only applies to children aged under 17, parents can't collect the $500 for dependents between the ages of 17 and 24, the maximum age for which you can claim a student as a dependent. Additionally, since those young adults didn't file returns for themselves, they're not eligible to receive stimulus payments of their own, according to a report from Vox.

"If you are a 23-year-old student with earned income and your parents claimed you as a dependent on their 2018 tax return, you won't receive stimulus check," says Safran. "The solution is to file your 2019 tax return as an independent taxpayer."

If you got less than you deserve, you could get help from next year's return

Experts expect that the IRS return forms for 2020, which taxpayers will use to file in 2021, will have a special line to account for "economic impact payments," the agency's official term for the stimulus. That's likely to be the most direct way to square things with the IRS if you didn't get the right amount of stimulus money.

"Let's say that you made too much money in '18 or '19, and now '20, you had a really bad year, you would get a tax credit on the 2020 tax return," says McClanahan.

Unfortunately, if you need the money sooner, your options are limited. The IRS is currently operating with a reduced staff, and phone support lines are currently unmanned, according to the agency's Taxpayer Advocate Service.

"For a lot of people, it's just going to be a heck of a lot easier to reconcile on the new tax return instead of trying to get through to the IRS right now," McClanahan says.

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If you got more than you expected, you don't have to do anything

Luckily, if you received more money than you were expecting, the general consensus is that the IRS won't come asking for any of it back. "If you got a check and you ended up making more money than would have been required for this year, you don't have to give it back," says McClanahan.

Experts have generally agreed on that understanding based on the text of the CARES Act itself and on guidance from the IRS. 

"There is no provision in the law requiring repayment of a payment," reads the agency's own guide to stimulus payments. "When you file next year, you can claim additional credits on your 2020 tax return if you are eligible for them, for example if your child is born in 2020. But you won't be required to repay any payment when filing your 2020 tax return even if your qualifying child turns 17 in 2020 or your adjusted gross income increases in 2020.″

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