What to do if your coronavirus stimulus check is too big or too small

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Your stimulus check is no-strings-attached government aid. Ziga Plahutar/E+/Getty
  • The IRS will start sending relief payments of up to $US1,200 to millions of Americans as soon as mid-April.
  • How much you get will depend on the adjusted gross income listed on the latest tax return you filed, either this year’s or 2018’s.
  • The one-time payment is technically an advance tax credit meant to offset your 2020 taxes. It’s refundable, so you won’t have to pay it back if you get too much.
  • If your payment is too small, you may be able to claim that money on next year’s tax return.
  • Read more personal finance coverage.

If you’re expecting to get a stimulus check in the next few weeks, you may be wondering whether it’s truly free money.

What happens if you get paid too much? Is the money taxable? Nothing and no. It really is no-strings-attached government aid.

The $US2.2 trillion economic relief bill passed by Congress last week directs the IRS to deliver “recovery rebates” to qualifying Americans. That is, adults who have a Social Security number and filed a tax return in 2018 or 2019 or receive payments from the Social Security Administration or Railroad Retirement Board.

The one-time payment – which the IRS is calling an “economic impact payment” – is technically an advanced tax credit meant to offset your 2020 federal income taxes.

A tax credit reduces your tax bill on a dollar-for-dollar basis. It is one of the last steps in calculating your annual tax liability and can be claimed regardless of whether you itemize your deductions. Some tax credits, like the coronavirus recovery rebate, are refundable. That means you’ll still get the money even if you don’t have enough tax liability to offset.

Ideally, the US government would make the stimulus payments based on 2020 income figures, since millions of people who were otherwise gainfully employed last year are now out of the job due to coronavirus containment measures and could desperately use the cash.

But the IRS is instead using the adjusted gross income (AGI) listed on the most recent tax return you filed, either this year’s or 2018’s, to determine the size of your payment. Americans who haven’t had to file a tax return in recent years but get Social Security payments for retirement will also be paid $US1,200 each via the direct deposit or home address provided on their statements.

What to do if your stimulus check is too big or too small

The maximum payment is $US1,200 for single filers with an AGI below $US75,000 or single parents (heads of household) with an AGI below $US112,500. Married couples who file jointly and have an AGI below $US150,000 will get a total of $US2,400.

Payments will begin to phase out at a rate of $US5 for each $US100 over the AGI threshold before ceasing at an AGI of $US99,000 for single filers, $US136,500 for heads of household, and $US198,000 for married filers. There’s also an additional $US500 allotted to parents who have an AGI within the phaseout range for each child under age 16.

These payments are treated differently than your tax refund. Typically, you can have your refund seized if you owe back taxes, but that’s not the case here. Even people with tax debt should be getting a stimulus payment if they’re under the income thresholds. The only people who could get their check reduced due to debt are parents with outstanding child support.

Again, because these payments are based on previous income, you might receive more or less money than is intended on a current needs basis. If you lost your job within the last month, for example, but reported an AGI north of $US99,000 on your latest tax return, then you wouldn’t be eligible for a relief payment. Or maybe you had a baby since filing your last tax return and should be getting that extra $US500.

While it won’t help you today, experts say the IRS will allow taxpayers to reconcile underpayment on next year’s tax return. “If you should have gotten a check and didn’t, or if you should have gotten more than you did because the IRS didn’t know something important (like you have a kid), you should get more money” next tax season, writes tax lawyer Kelly Phillips Erb on Forbes.

The opposite may also happen: Someone has a too-high AGI this year, but their 2018 or 2019 income is within the threshold so they receive a payment. There aren’t any clawback provisions outlined in the current bill, so you wouldn’t be expected to repay any of the money if you wind up getting too much.

The IRS is aiming to get payments out to taxpayers via direct deposit by mid-April. If you haven’t provided bank information on previous tax returns, the IRS is developing an online portal where you can share your direct deposit info to speed up the payment process.