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My Stimulus Was Too High. Will I Need to Pay It Back?

By Maurie Backman - May 5, 2020 at 7:22AM

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A higher stimulus payment than expected is a good thing in theory. But will it come back to bite you?

The COVID-19 crisis has already had a huge impact on the U.S. economy. Thankfully, Americans are already getting some relief thanks to the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, which has boosted and extended unemployment benefits, provided billions in forgivable small business loans, and paid millions of Americans their much-anticipated stimulus cash.

If your stimulus payment has already hit your bank account, you may be looking at the exact amount you expected to get. But what if your stimulus payment has come in higher than anticipated? That's a good thing to have happen in theory. But if your stimulus is too high, will you eventually have to pay it back?

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How your stimulus payment is calculated

The amount of money you're due in your stimulus is based on these factors:

  • Your tax-filing status
  • The number of dependents in your household under age 17
  • Your adjusted gross income (AGI) from either your 2018 or 2019 tax return (the latest one the IRS has on file is the one that will be used to determine your stimulus payment)

Meanwhile, you're eligible to receive up to $1,200 in stimulus cash as an adult, plus another $500 per child under 17 in your household, but those payments will start to phase out once your AGI exceeds these limits:

  • $75,000 as a single tax filer
  • $112,500 as a head of household
  • $150,000 as a married couple filing jointly

Once your AGI surpasses these amounts, your stimulus is reduced by $5 per $100 of extra income. As such, some recipients are finding that they're not getting that full $1,200, since their AGI is too high for it.

But what if your stimulus is higher than you think it should be? Here's how that might play out.

Imagine you're single with no dependents and had an AGI of $74,000 in 2018, which is the last tax return the IRS has on file for you. (A lot of people haven't yet filed their 2019 taxes, since the deadline to do so is pushed back to July 15.) Based on that AGI, you're entitled to a full $1,200. But what if you know your AGI for 2019 is $77,000? Based on your 2019 income, that means you're only entitled to $1,100 in stimulus cash, yet you may be sitting on a full $1,200 because the IRS didn't yet receive your 2019 taxes.

Here's another scenario that could apply to you: Imagine you have a child in your household who's turning 17 this year, but who was under 17 as of your last return. You may have received an extra $500 in your stimulus because of that child, even though you'd now be ineligible for that additional money.

Will you have to pay back your stimulus?

If your stimulus check is higher than expected, here's some good news: The IRS says that for the most part, you should not have to pay it back. There are, however, a couple of exceptions. If your last filing status is married filing jointly but your spouse has since passed away, yet you receive a $1,200 stimulus payment for him or her, you may be asked to repay that sum. (It's still unclear how the IRS might enforce this rule, though). Similarly, if you somehow received a double stimulus payment due to a technical glitch -- for example, you're single with no dependents and somehow got $2,400 in your bank account instead of $1,200 -- don't expect to get to keep that money. But in the scenarios described above (a higher AGI in 2018 or a dependent who's technically aged out for eligibility), you shouldn't have to repay your stimulus money.

One final thing: While some people are finding that their stimulus payments are higher than expected, others are having the opposite experience -- they're seeing less money than they thought they'd get. If that's happened to you, you may need to wait until you file your 2020 tax return to get any additional funds you're due. At a time when so many people are desperate for money, that may not be ideal, but the silver lining is that you won't have to give up that extra cash completely.

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