If Your Stimulus Check Doesn't Come by Jan. 15, You'll Have to File a Return to Get It

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Will you get your check on time?

At the end of last year, President Donald Trump finally signed a $900 billion coronavirus stimulus bill. The legislation was hard-fought as lawmakers had struggled for months to negotiate a COVID-19 relief deal. And their efforts were nearly derailed as the president initially refused to sign the bill, calling it a "disgrace" on Twitter. He felt some provisions were wasteful and others didn't provide the relief Americans needed

The legislation included stimulus checks for most Americans worth a maximum of $600 per eligible adult and child dependent. After the initial hold up as the bill awaited the president's signature, the IRS has been busy distributing the money. There's a problem, though. The agency has a strict deadline for getting the payments out and it's fast approaching.

If the IRS doesn't send your payment by Jan. 15, you'll have to jump through more hoops to get it

When lawmakers drafted the coronavirus relief bill, it gave the IRS until Jan. 15 to distribute payments. Those payments could be made via direct deposit into American's accounts, or by check or debit card.

The agency has been hard at work to meet that deadline. As of early Tuesday, the agency indicated it had already distributed around $112 billion directly into people's bank accounts. It was able to act much more quickly to distribute the second payment than the first one since it already had so much bank account information on file.

However, with the very limited time available to make payments to millions of Americans, it's inevitable some people will not receive theirs in time. There are a variety of problems that could prevent the timely delivery of funds. One of the main issues is that if people closed their accounts since the delivery of the first stimulus check, the IRS may send money to inactive bank accounts.

The short deadline means there's no way for the agency to let you update your bank account info. It's also unable to reissue any payments if the money is returned to the agency or other problems arise. And unlike with the last stimulus check, it can't mount a vigorous campaign to encourage those who haven't filed recent tax returns to provide their information online.

All of this means many people -- including some who are likely most in need of the money -- won't get it before the January deadline. And because the IRS won't be able to distribute payments after that time, they'll have to go through some additional steps to get their cash.

What happens if you don't get your money by Jan. 15, 2021?

If your stimulus payment does not come by Jan. 15, 2021, the only way you can claim it is to file a tax return for the 2020 year.

See, both the first and second stimulus checks were actually an advance on a tax credit. The legislature authorized the IRS to pay it out early via direct deposit, check, or debit card. Normally you'd have to wait until you filed your tax returns to claim a tax credit.

If you don't get your money, you can submit a return and claim the tax credit -- which is called the Recovery Rebate Credit.

The unfortunate thing is that filing a tax return can be a complicated process. And many of the people who missed out on the first or second check wouldn't ordinarily be required to file one because their income is below the necessary threshold. That means if you don't get your check, you could find yourself doing a lot of paperwork just to claim it.

Even if you do normally file a return, it's still unfortunate that you may have to do so to claim your stimulus payment. The agency won't begin accepting tax returns for 2020 until the end of this month, and it may take you even more time to get your paperwork together.

Once you've submitted your returns, you'll still have to wait for your tax credit to come as part of your refund. And if your refund reduces an outstanding tax bill, you won't end up getting a payment at all but will simply have to make a smaller payment.

Find out if you'll have to file a return

Sadly, there's nothing you can do to avoid this fate if the IRS has your old bank info on file or if there's another reason the agency isn't able to distribute your check. You can tell if this will happen by using the Get My Payment tool on the IRS website. As my colleague explained in The Ascent's daily stimulus news, you can use the IRS tool to track your payment. If you get a message reading "Payment Status #2 - Not Available" you're in the group that will need to submit a return to claim your money.

If that's your situation, start getting your paperwork together now. That way you can file your return ASAP at the end of the month and get your payment sooner rather than later.

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