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1.2 million Americans haven't claimed their stimulus checks, IRS says: Here's how to get your money

“Try filing a Recovery Rebate Credit on your 2020 tax return” if your payment is still missing.

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While some Americans hold out hope for a potential fourth stimulus check, others still haven't collected their money from the first round of payments.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act from Newsweek, the IRS revealed that roughly 1.2 million people never cashed in on the $1,200 payments to Americans it offered as part of the CARES Act in spring 2020. That adds up to $2.1 billion of payments that weren't disbursed, either because the intended recipients didn't deposit their checks or because the checks were returned to the U.S. Treasury.

Of the roughly 160 million stimulus payments sent out in March 2020, the 1.2 million still outstanding represent just 0.78% of the total. But on an individual level, a missing $1,200 could have a big impact, especially with so many Americans still needing financial help in the wake of the pandemic.

Certain states have more uncashed checks per capita than others. Based on the IRS data, Newsweek found that residents of Pennsylvania left the most money on the table, with a total of 72,252 outstanding checks, or 0.56% per capita. Vermont, Montana, Michigan, and Indiana round out the rest of the top five states where people, intentionally or not, have left stimulus money on the table.

Missing a payment? Start by checking with the IRS

Some of these failures to cash in were likely intentional. "There are actually some people who make donations to pay down the federal debt out of the goodness of their heart," Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told Newsweek. "And some people really don't want an ounce of government in their lives."

But if you desired a payment from the first round of the stimulus program, or the subsequent ones, and never got to cash one, there's likely an explanation. The IRS has been dealing with a swath of pandemic-related issues, which have slowed down their normal procedures and caused some delays.

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To find a missing check, start by visiting the "Get My Payment" tool on the IRS' website to get an update on your funds.

You may see a "Payment Status Not Available" error message. That usually means your payment hasn't been processed yet, some of your information is still needed, or that you're simply not eligible.  

What to do if the IRS website can't help

If you don't get the answer you need online, the problem may be more nuanced. For starters, Americans who haven't filed federal taxes in a while — even if they weren't required to do so — are likely to have had their checks held up.

"Many Americans who typically do not file a federal income tax return are still eligible to receive an Economic Impact Payment," says Marguerita Cheng, CFP, CRPC, of Blue Ocean Global Wealth. However, in most cases, they would have needed to register with the IRS to receive a stimulus check, Cheng says. "This group includes those who filed a federal income tax return in 2018 or 2019."

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You'd also need to re-register with the IRS if you moved recently or closed the bank account the agency has on file. Be sure to double-check that your information is current.

If you didn't have a bank account on file with the IRS, the agency may have sent you a prepaid debit card instead of a check. Some people accidentally tossed them away, thinking it was a scam. Those cards and unclaimed paper checks "become void 12 months from the time when the payment was first issued," says Cheng.

Since the first CARES Act payments were issued more than a year ago, many people who received a check but did not cash it will no longer be able to do so. Instead, they'll need to contact the IRS to have the funds reissued.

Here are some other common reasons your money may still be missing.

How to note a missing stimulus payment on your taxes

If you still can't pin down the source of your missing stimulus payment, you can request it from the IRS by submitting a 1040 or 1040-SR by the May 17 tax deadline and filling in the "missing sum" entry on line 30. If you have already filed your taxes for 2020, you may need to consider an amendment or talk to a professional about your options.

"People should have their Notice 1444 and Notice 1444-B" as well, Reed C. Fraasa, CFP, CFA, EA, of Highland Financial Advisors says. These are government forms indicating eligibility for stimulus payments, and are helpful to keep on file in the case that your stimulus never shows.

In a release, the IRS says taxpayers should hold onto these forms alongside other documentation for their 2020 taxes. Taxpayers who received one of these forms, but not their first payment, will need it to request a payment trace — a protocol for tracking down a lost, stolen, or misplaced payment — directly from the agency.

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