How to know if your stimulus payment is correct and what to do if it isn't

How to take action if your stimulus payment is lower than it should be

Many Americans have already received coronavirus stimulus money, and the IRS is hard at work sending checks to millions more. But not every payment has been for the correct amount. You shouldn't assume the IRS sends you what you deserve, either. Instead, do the math yourself so you can take action if your stimulus payment is lower than it should be.

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How to calculate the coronavirus stimulus money you're owed

For most Americans, the math is simple: You get $1,200 per adult and $500 per eligible dependent. So to figure out the amount you're due, just add up $1,200 for your own check, another $1,200 if you have a spouse, and $500 for each qualifying dependent.

Things get more confusing if your adjusted gross income is above $75,000 as a single filers; $112,500 if you file as head of household; or $150,000 as part of a married couple filing jointly. In this case, you need to:

  • Figure out the full amount you could potentially be entitled to by adding in $1,200 for you and your spouse (if applicable) plus $500 for each eligible dependent child.
  • Determine how far over the income limit you are for your filing status.
  • Subtract $5 from the full amount for every $100 in income above the applicable limit.

Let's say you file as head of household, have two kids, and made $120,000.

  • Add your stimulus check amount ($1,200) to the total amount for your two children ($1,000) to see you could potentially be entitled to as much as $2,200. 
  • Your income limit to receive the full amount is $112,500, so your $120,000 income is $7,500 over the limit.
  • Dividing $7,500 by 100 gives you 75; multiply that by $5 to see that $375 should be deducted from your check amount.

So in this case, your stimulus payment would be $1,825.

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To do its calculations and decide how much money to send, the IRS is using income information from 2019 tax returns if those have been filed, or 2018 returns if they haven't. If you didn't file for either year, your information will come from Social Security or the Department of Veterans Affairs if you receive benefits from either. Or you can provide your info in a simple online form created for nonfilers.

If your income was higher when you filed your most recent return for 2018 or 2019 but you expect that it's going to fall in 2020, your check will definitely be smaller than what you should eventually receive. You can use your details from this year when you figure out how much you should have actually gotten.

Who should be included as a dependent when doing the math?

Not sure if someone counts as a dependent? Only children under 17 do, and they must:

  • Be related to you by blood or marriage.
  • Be claimed as dependents on your tax return.
  • Have a valid Social Security number.
  • Live with you at least half the year and receive at least half their financial support from you.

Unfortunately, that means dependent adults including college kids don't count.

What should you do if you got the wrong amount of money? 

If your stimulus check is too high, you typically won't be asked to pay back the money unless you accidentally received a check for a deceased relative.

But if your payment is too low, you want to get the rest of the money you're owed. Unfortunately, the only option to do that is to wait until you can file a 2020 tax return to claim the added funds. That's because the stimulus payments are actually an advance on a tax credit. If your advance was for less than you're owed, you're entitled to the rest but have to prove it when you submit your return.

That means you'll have to wait awhile until you can collect the balance of your coronavirus stimulus payment, since the IRS won't start accepting 2020 returns until the end of January 2021.

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