Every important thing you need to know about stimulus checks right now – CNET

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


Angela Lang/CNET

The IRS will be busier over the coming weeks than usual. It’s not just that this year’s tax season started a few weeks later, giving the agency less time to work through federal tax filings. The IRS is also required to sort through the claims on this year’s tax forms for missing payments from the first and second stimulus checks. And to add to the agency’s work, Congressional Democrats are pushing to complete a $1.9 trillion COVID-relief bill by the middle of March that could have the IRS sending out the third round of stimulus checks within days of being signed into law by President Joe Biden. (Here’s how a third check during tax time could affect you.)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Feb. 11 said she hopes the House will have its work finished on the stimulus bill by “the end of February” so it can send the package onto the Senate and then to Biden to sign before March 14, when federal unemployment benefits are set to expire. To speed the bill through Congress, Democrats are using a legislative tool called budget reconciliation that would remove barriers that Republicans could use to slow down a vote. By fast-tracking the legislation, the IRS could start sending the third stimulus payments out as soon as the third week in March, if Congressional Democrats can keep to their schedule.

While Congress is hammering out the details on a $1,400 stimulus check over the next month, however, millions of Americans  are still waiting for money from the first or second payments — we’ll explain how to claim that as a tax credit. We’ll also tell you what you need to know about how some rules have changed (around garnishment, for example) and when it’s time to file a payment trace for your missing money. Below, we’ve broken down the most important stimulus check facts right now. This story was updated with new information. 

Congress is moving ahead with Biden’s plan for $1,400 checks, with changes to income limits

Biden hasn’t wavered from his promise to send $1,400 checks, since first announcing  his plan for a third round of payments in his American Rescue Plan in January. What has been open to debate, however, is who would qualify for the third stimulus payment.

A group of moderate Senate Republicans in January lobbied Biden to reduce the check amount and significantly lower the income cap required to qualify for a payment. While Biden rejected the proposal — saying “Congress must respond boldly and urgently” — the Republican pitch kicked off a discussion on “targeting” the next round of payments to exclude higher earners from receiving money.

After some back and forth in Congress on whether to lower the income limits to target payments, House Democrats settled on a plan that would follow the income-requirement outlines used for the first two checks but set a upper cap to cut off payments for higher earners. Under the current House Democrats’ plan (PDF), individuals with an AGI (or adjusted gross income) of $100,000 a year would be excluded from receiving a payment. Heads of household earning $150,000 a year and couples earning $200,000 would also be above the upper limit to qualify for any money.  

See our calculator for the third stimulus check to get an estimate for how you and your family would do under the plan.


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Stimulus check No. 3: What you need to know

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How Democrats will speed approval of the third checks through Congress

Using a powerful, seldom-used legislative tool called budget reconciliation, Congressional Democrats hope to speed through approval of Biden’s rescue bill. The reconciliation process comes with strict requirements for what can and can’t be included in the bill. For example, House and Senate Democrats are working through whether they can include a hike to the minimum wage as part of the bill.

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

Tax-filing season this years carries an extra load for those who qualify for the first, second or potentially third stimulus checks — and that’s whether you are required to file taxes or not. The IRS uses the federal tax system to decide things like how much money you should get in your stimulus checks (based on your AGI), how quickly it can send your next payment and 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).

The third payment looks like it could be based on either your 2019 or 2020 tax filing, which may complicate the situation for some.

If your first or second payment haven’t arrived, or if any amount is missing, the IRS will also use your 2020 taxes to reconcile the difference — but only if you file for a Recovery Rebate Credit as part of a tax return. Again, 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.

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There are three stimulus checks you may have to worry about claiming, and it’s hard to keep the details straight.


Sarah Tew/CNET

A third stimulus check could get sent out 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 taking office, Biden had pushed for Congress to another COVID-19 relief package quickly — one that includes a third stimulus check for up to $1,400.

If as Pelosi plans, Biden signs the bill by March 14, payments could be sent out quickly to bank accounts — within days — now that the IRS has its system in place after the first and second checks. Here’s the current stimulus check timeline as we know it now.

More people could qualify for a third stimulus check, but fewer could, too

With with the Biden administration, House Democrats are looking to expand who qualifies for a check and include at last two groups left out of the first payments: dependents of any age and families with mixed-status citizenship (that means some members are not US citizens).

But Congress could decide to exclude some who may have qualified for a payment with the first two checks. Congress has settled on the third stimulus check coming with a per-person maximum of $1,400. But they are looking at setting a cap on the upper income limit to qualify for a payment, which would mean some in the upper-income category may not receive any money at all, for themselves or their dependents.

If you are curious, here are the details of mathematical formula Congress is looking at to set payments.

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


Sarah Tew/CNET

Your stimulus check rights improved with the second round — for the most part

Usually, stimulus dollars are yours to spend or save as you please. You can’t be compelled to spend your proceeds on rent, car payments, back taxes or debt — or even unpaid child support. But the second check that went out last month changed some of the rules.

The government’s Taxpayer Advocate Service, which works with the IRS, has pointed out that anyone claiming a Recovery Rebate Credit for catch-up stimulus money is not automatically protected from garnishment.

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 stimulus check rules and exceptions can get very confusing

With 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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