Stimulus check 101: The biggest things you need to know right now

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

Angela Lang/CNET

Keeping up with news about stimulus checks and where things stand can be daunting. Maybe you have a question about the second stimulus check. Or maybe you want to know the status of a third stimulus check for a potential $1,400 that could arrive in a matter of weeks, and how to calculate how much money you might be eligible to receive. Perhaps there’s something you didn’t know you needed to know about stimulus checks and your upcoming 2020 taxes

If you’re still missing a full or partial payment from the IRS, we’ve got answers on how to claim that money. We also have some tips for how to potentially get the next round of payments into your bank account faster

Below, we’ve broken down the most important things you should know about stimulus checks right now. This story was recently updated. 

Tax Season 2020 is important for stimulus checks, even if you don’t usually have to file

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 (it’ll be faster if you set up direct deposit with the IRS and do your taxes soon).

If your first or second payment haven’t arrived, 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 as, you guessed it, part of a tax return. Yes, that even applies to non-filers, people who aren’t typically required to file income tax. 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 funds, you may need to set up a payment trace rather than use the IRS’ rebate credit.

A third stimulus check could happen pretty quickly

It took exactly nine months to get from 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 — along with Congressional Democrats — want to see the third injection of funds sooner rather than later. 

Stimulus check 101: The biggest things you need to know right now

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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 could qualify for the next stimulus check, but it 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.


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

Sarah Tew/CNET

Your stimulus check rights improved with the second round

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 that allows at least one entity to garnish your stimulus money. Make sure you know your stimulus check rights.

The rules and exceptions can get very confusing

When it comes to stimulus checks, small details and exceptions can be dizzying. 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:

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