Millions of Americans are eagerly awaiting their coronavirus stimulus checks, and the IRS recently started depositing money into bank accounts.
The maximum amount you can receive is $1,200 (or $2,400 for married couples filing their taxes jointly), plus an additional $500 for each child under age 17 claimed as a dependent on your tax return. For many people who have lost their job and are struggling to pay the bills, this extra cash can go a long way.
However, some people who are eligible to receive a check may never see that money. That's because there's one little-known way you could lose your stimulus payment.
The special rule that could cost you your stimulus check
In general, the stimulus money you receive is yours to spend however you like. You don't have to pay it back, and it won't count toward your income -- meaning you won't have to pay taxes on it next year. That said, if you have a negative bank account balance or overdraft fees, your bank could seize your stimulus check without your permission.
Under the CARES Act, federal and state governments won't take your stimulus check to cover unpaid debts other than child support, but private debt collectors currently can. That means if you have unpaid debt or fees through the bank that handles the account your check will be deposited into, your bank could potentially take your money and put it toward your debt before you get a chance to spend it.
Some banks -- including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup -- have promised not to seize customers' stimulus checks to cover unpaid debt. So even if your account has a negative balance, you will still have access to your full stimulus payment. Not all banks are taking this approach, however, so it's up to your bank to decide whether it will seize stimulus checks or not.
What to do if your bank takes your check
You may not have a say in whether your bank chooses to garnish stimulus checks to pay off negative account balances, but you still have some power.
If your bank has already seized your stimulus payment, reach out and ask them to reconsider. The bank may not reverse its decision, but you never know unless you ask. Many lawmakers are pushing for the Treasury Department to prohibit banks from taking stimulus checks, arguing that because this money is intended to help people survive during a crisis, there should be restrictions on debt collection. If more people call their banks and ask for their stimulus money back, it may prompt banks or lawmakers to take action.
You may also choose to contact your local representatives. While there is currently no nationwide rule that prohibits banks from seizing stimulus checks, some local governments have created rules against it. For example, the Indiana Supreme Court recently ruled that debt collectors cannot garnish stimulus payments, and more states could follow suit. By contacting your local lawmakers, you may be able to persuade them to push for similar regulations.
Another option, if you haven't already received your check, is to avoid depositing your money right away. If the IRS doesn't have your direct deposit information on file, you'll be receiving a paper check in the mail. When you receive it, you can simply cash your check rather than deposit it. There's still a chance that debt collectors could obtain a judgment against you in court and freeze your bank account, but as long as your cash isn't in that account, they can't seize it.
Stimulus checks are a lifeline for millions of households who are struggling to make ends meet due to the coronavirus pandemic, and if banks seize those payments to cover unpaid debts, it could make this difficult time even more challenging. By being aware of this rule, though, you may be able to take steps to protect your cash.