Stimulus checks simplified: The top 5 things everyone should know right now

Keeping with with the ins and outs of stimulus checks is hard. We’re here to

Keeping with with the ins and outs of stimulus checks is hard. We’re here to help.


Angela Lang/CNET

Will there be a third stimulus check for $1,400 or $2,000, when is the new payment coming and how could qualifications change? Can you calculate how much stimulus money you’d get? If you’re missing a full or partial payment from the IRS, what do you do now that the agency stopped automatically sending checks — and what does it all have to do with your taxes

We answer these questions and more. Here are the most important things you should know about stimulus checks right now.

Stimulus checks make Tax Season 2020 really important — for everyone

Whether you normally file taxes or don’t, stimulus checks add an extra dimension to taxes, and vice versa. That’s because the IRS has more or less hooked into the tax system to decide everything from how much money you should get in your stimulus checks (based on your AGI) to how quickly it can send your next payment, or even if you should get a catch-up payment (faster if you set up direct deposit with the IRS and do your taxes soon).

If all your first or second payment hasn’t arrived in your hands or if any amount is missing, the IRS will use your 2020 taxes to reconcile the difference — but only if you file for a Recovery Rebate Credit in, you guessed it, as part of a tax return. Yes, that even applies to non-filers, people who aren’t typically required to file taxes. Here’s our primer on everything stimulus check and taxes

One more thing: If you got a letter from the IRS saying the money was sent, but you never got your money, you may need to set up a payment trace.

A third stimulus check is likely to happen, and it could come soon

Nine months to the day. That’s exactly how long it took between the signing of the CARES Act (March 27, 2020) to the December stimulus bill (Dec. 27, 2020). Even before inauguration, President Joe Biden has been bullish about Congress passing another COVID-19 relief package — one that includes a third stimulus check for up to $1,400. And he — and Congressional Democrats — want to see it sooner rather than later. 


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In fact, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said a bill could be ready for a vote in the House of Representatives as soon as the week of Feb. 1. It isn’t clear if this would be a smaller bill containing only a stimulus check and funding for coronavirus vaccine delivery, or the whole sweeping package, but the level of urgency indicates that a new stimulus payment could arrive in the next month or two at most. Here’s the current stimulus check timeline as we know it now.

More people will likely qualify for the next stimulus check, but things may get complicated

Whether the third stimulus check winds up having a per-person maximum of $1,400, $2,000 or some other amount, as long as it’s more than $600, more people are likely to qualify (handy chart here). That’s because there’s an income limit that’s part of a mathematical formula used by the IRS after which point you can’t get any money. That some-money threshold goes up when the per-person maximum goes up. So more people are eligible for some stimulus money with a $1,200 check than with $600, and so on.

In addition to setting up a higher overall payout with a larger check, Biden’s stimulus proposal also seeks to include two more groups of people: Dependents of any age and families with mixed-status citizenship (that means some members are not US citizens). 

What isn’t clear is how the payment will work for these groups. Will households all get another round of money per dependent, or just those who were excluded before? Will any amount of the payment be retroactive for mixed-status families who were barred from claiming the first and second check? Those rules aren’t yet determined.

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The path between you and your stimulus check money is sometimes winding.


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You have stimulus check rights, and they got better with the second check

For the most part, stimulus dollars are yours to spend or save as you please. Almost nobody can compel you to pass over your proceeds for rent, car payments, back taxes or debt — or even unpaid child support. That’s with the second check that went out last month, which changed some of the rules. It isn’t clear how a third check would play into the mix. And there is still an exception of who could garnish your stimulus money. Make sure you know your stimulus check rights.

The rules and exceptions are dizzying

When it comes to stimulus checks, small details and exceptions can be confusing. While some situations are easy to decipher, others concerning you and your dependents might make it unclear if you’re eligible, how much money you could receive and if there’s anything extra you have to do to claim your money.

For example: