Checks can make payments inexpensive and easy, but what happens when nobody deposits them? At some point, checks go stale. But the obligation to pay still exists, so it’s best to deal with payments as soon as possible.
Checks Written to You
Unless you have a government-issued check or certified check, it’s wise to deposit checks within six months. After that, you may want to ask for a reissued check. Doing so prevents confusion at the bank and lets the check writer know that you’re ready to collect your money.
Checks You Write
Again, six months is a good rule of thumb. If somebody fails to deposit or cash a check you wrote, they may have difficulty negotiating the check after six months. However, you still owe the money, and banks can choose to process the payment.
How Long Is a Check Good For?
In most situations, a check is good for six months. But there are several exceptions, and there’s no guarantee that banks will reject checks after that time. The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which most states use as a model for the law, says that banks do not need to honor old checks. But banks can still process those payments if they believe the check is good.
Ultimately, it may depend on the type of check involved, explained in detail below, and what the bank chooses to do.
Personal checks are typically valid for six months after the date written on the check. But banks might not notice the date, or they might choose to process stale-dated checks for customers.
U.S. Treasury Checks
Checks from the federal government, such as federal income tax refunds, vary when it comes to the timeline. State and local governments may set their own expiration dates, so if you lose the check or more than six months have gone by, it’s best to contact the agency that sent it to you.
Treasury checks include those from the IRS, the Social Security Administration, Defense Finance and Accounting Service for the DOD, the Office of Personnel Management, and Veterans Affairs.
Cashier’s checks can be complicated, and state law affects how long those payments are good for. Banks might not accept a cashier’s check for deposit after 90 days because the issuing bank could return the check unpaid after that time. If you have a cashier’s check that’s more than 90 days old, contact the issuing bank to get a new check.
Money orders typically don’t expire. However, the money order issuer might start charging fees against the money order, eroding its value and eventually making it worthless. For example, Western Union charges fees to money orders after one to three years. Instead of depositing those old money orders, you may need to contact the issuer to get any remaining value. Other issuers may not charge fees, but they must eventually turn unclaimed assets over to the state.
It’s best to the money order issuer for details—it can get complicated. For example, domestic USPS money orders are good indefinitely, but international money orders can expire.
Traveler’s checks might not ever expire, and can always be refunded if lost or stolen. As long as the issuer is still in business, you can use those instruments wherever they are accepted.
Why Waiting Is Risky
You may have valid reasons for holding on to a check written to you, but it’s best to deposit or cash checks as soon as possible, as there are risks involved.
Eventually, the person or business that the check is from might switch banks. If you deposit a check from a closed account, the check will bounce, and your bank may charge you fees for depositing a bad check.
When somebody pays you by check, they expect you to deposit the check soon. Presumably, they have funds available when they write the check, but that might change. Most people don’t expect checks to hit their account six months later, so they might not have money set aside for your payment anymore. Again, if the check bounces, you’ll owe fees.
If somebody worries that a check got lost, they may decide to stop payment—an order not to pay a check that has been issued, but not cashed—on that check. The bank will then reject your deposit, and it’ll bounce back to your bank unpaid. That said, stop payments are one situation when it may actually work in your favor to deposit a stale-dated check—because stop payment orders eventually expire. A bank may not be liable for a stop payment if you fail to provide enough information to identify the check or if you do implement the stop payment order early enough.
Void After 90 Days
Checks may say they’re only good for 90 days (or 180 days). Whether or not that restriction is valid depends on several factors. Your bank may ultimately decide to ignore those instructions and process a check anyway.
Some courts have found those time-limiting statements to be unenforceable, but don’t count on that in every case. Still, it’s best to honor any language on a check—either deposit the check promptly or contact the check writer if you can’t make the deadline.
Do Checks You Write Expire?
When you write a check that goes uncashed, you may wonder what to do. You still owe the money, even if nobody deposits the check. If that’s the case, it’s best to keep the funds available in your account for at least six months. After that, leave the money alone or set it aside somewhere else for the inevitable day that you have to make good on the payment. Check with an attorney for specific guidance, and remember that a bank might accept the deposit and try to pull funds from your account at any time.
You don’t get to keep money you owe to somebody else just because they fail to deposit a check. At some point, you may have to turn the funds over to the state for safekeeping.