An outstanding check is a check that a recipient fails to deposit. Once such checks are finally deposited, they can cause accounting problems. Furthermore, checks that are never cashed may constitute "unclaimed property" that is turned over to the state.
Why Outstanding Checks Matter
When you pay someone by check, your payee must deposit or cash the check to collect the payment. The payee’s bank will request money from your bank, and the transaction concludes when your bank sends funds to the payee’s bank. Alternatively, if you both use the same bank or credit union, the transaction will conclude when the money is transferred from your account into the payee's account.
If a check is destroyed or never deposited, the money remains in the payer's account. At first glance, this may seem like a positive turn of events for the payer. However, this can cause problems down the line.
Inflated Account Balance
If you write a check and the money never leaves your account, you may develop the false belief you can spend those funds, but the money still belongs to the payee. If the payee finally deposits the check after months of delay, you risk overdrawing your account and bouncing the check.
Businesses must track outstanding items to avoid breaking unclaimed property laws. If payments to employees or vendors remain uncashed, they eventually must turn over those assets to the state. This typically occurs after a few years, but timetables vary from state to state.
Businesses must track income, expenses, and accounts payable. When payments remain outstanding, complications can arise. The payment goes on the general ledger, but businesses must make adjustments during reconciliation, and they may need to reissue stale checks.
Businesses that mishandle these kinds of accounting situations are effectively in violation of the law.
What to Do About Outstanding Checks
To remedy these situations quickly, be proactive with outstanding checks. After all, you still owe the money, and you’ll have to pay it sooner or later. Your first step should be to use an accounting system that deducts any uncashed checks from your available funds. After that, there are a few more steps you can take to track down an old check.
Call or Write
Call or email payees who fail to deposit checks and ensure that the check was, in fact, received. If they have the check, try to persuade them to deposit the check. If that doesn’t work, send a letter informing payees the check has not been presented and officially request they notify you if they have not received the payment.
Document communication regarding outstanding checks. This documentation will come in handy if you need to prove to state regulators that you made reasonable attempts to complete the payment. If an outstanding check is cashed after you asked a bank to stop the payment, you will be responsible for proving that you took the necessary steps to complete the payment.
Online Bill Pay
Individuals can reduce surprise withdrawals in personal accounts by using online bill payment instead of issuing paper checks.
Online payments offer a more direct way of transferring the funds between you and the payee. This reduces opportunities for complications.
Should You Write Another Check?
After speaking with your payee, they may request another check. Before sending one, ask the payee to return the old check to eliminate the possibility of both checks being deposited, either intentionally or unintentionally.
It may be necessary to issue a new check without getting the old check back if the original check was lost or destroyed. This presents a thorny situation—two checks might be circulating for a single payment. If the old check is deposited, your bank might honor it, and you could consequently end up paying double.
Fortunately, banks don't have a legal obligation to honor checks written more than six months in the past. If the old check isn't six months old, or if you want an extra layer of protection, two strategies can protect you.
If the amount is large enough to cause problems, or if you're dubious of the payee, consider asking your bank to stop payment on the old check. There are drawbacks to this strategy: Stop payment requests cost money and they only last for six months. If your stop payment order is given orally, rather than written, it is only valid for two weeks. If you have ongoing concerns about an outstanding check, you may have to make repeated requests.
Ask the payee to sign a document promising not to deposit both checks. This won’t prevent banks from processing two deposits, but the document can provide a useful paper trail if you want to dispute one of the deposits.
Why Checks Aren't Cashed
Checks don’t get deposited for several reasons:
- No urgency: Payees sometimes fail to get around to processing the check. This usually happens when they don't desperately need the cash to make immediate purchases.
- Falling through cracks: Checks sometimes become lost. They may get buried under piles of paper or fall behind desks.
- Delivery problems: Checks may be returned to you in the mail if a payee’s address has changed.
Outstanding Checks Issued to You
If a check was issued to you and it’s still outstanding after six months, contact the check issuer and request a replacement. As mentioned above, you may need to return the original check or sign documents confirming the check is lost or destroyed. You may also need to pledge not to deposit both checks. If you cannot find the issuer, consult your state’s abandoned property program to claim assets.