Why your stimulus check is lower than expected — and what to do if it's wrong

The IRS warned that coronavirus relief payments might be different based on a taxpayer's income, filing status, family size and more.
Eric Gay / AP

Americans around the country are expecting relief checks under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to lessen the financial blow of the pandemic. So far, nearly 130 million of the payments have been delivered, with more on the way.

Many will receive a $1,200 check, also known as an Economic Impact Payment, but the IRS warned on Tuesday that the amounts might be different based on a taxpayer's income, filing status, family size and more.

Here are a few common reasons why your stimulus check may be a different amount than expected.

1. You haven't filed a 2019 tax return or the IRS hasn't finished processing your 2019 return.

According to the IRS, the Economic Impact Payments will be automatically issued to people who filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return, with the IRS typically using information from the 2019 tax return to calculate the payment amount.

If a 2019 tax return hasn't been filed, the IRS will use a 2018 tax return, which might not reflect "various life changes in 2019," such as a different income or the birth of a child.

The IRS says that in this case, taxpayers who get a payment based on 2018 tax returns "may be able to claim an additional amount on the 2020 tax return they file next year," which could make them eligible for an additional $500 for "each qualifying child" who isn't reflected in their relief payment.

2. Claimed dependents aren't eligible for an additional payment.

The Child Tax Credit grants parents $500 per child in the household but only if those children are dependents under the age of 17 at the end of the year of the tax return that the IRS uses.

"To claim the Child Tax Credit, the taxpayer generally must be related to the child, live with them more than half the year and provide at least half of their support," said the IRS in a statement. "Besides their own children, adopted children and foster children, eligible children can include the taxpayer's younger siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews if they can be claimed as dependents."

The IRS statement notes that to qualify, children must be United States citizens, permanent residents or "other qualifying resident aliens." The child must have a valid Social Security Number or Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number; children with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers aren't eligible for the payment.

In the cases of divorced or unmarried parents, the IRS notes that parents who aren't married and don't file a joint return "cannot both claim their qualifying child as a dependent." In those cases, the parent who claimed the child on his or her 2019 tax return may receive an additional payment, and the parent who did not claim the child may be able to claim an additional payment in 2020 if they are able to claim the child as his or her qualifying child on that tax return.

3. Your dependents are college students.

College students, even if they are dependents, aren't eligible for a relief check or the additional $500 payment. While college students have complained about their exclusion from the payments, changes haven't been made.

The IRS says that if the student cannot be claimed as a dependent for 2020, that student "may be eligible to claim a $1,200 tax credit on their 2020 tax return next year."

4. Claimed dependents are over the age of 17.

Dependents over the age of 17 aren't eligible for the additional $500 payment. This includes parents, grandparents and other relatives who may be considered dependents.

If a parent or other relative can't be claimed as a dependent, they "may be eligible to individually claim a $1,200 credit on their 2020 tax return filed next year," according to the IRS.

5. Garnishments or past-due child support was deducted.

Anyone whose payment is offset by past-due support will be sent a notice by the Bureau of the Fiscal Service. For married taxpayers who are filing jointly but have a child support agreement in place, only the payment of the spouse who owes past-due support should be offset.

The relief payments, along with any other federal tax refunds, aren't protected from garnishment by creditors. The payment can be garnished once it has been deposited into a taxpayer's bank account.

What should you do if the amount of your stimulus check is wrong?

First, make sure you meet the eligibility requirements.

The IRS says that many eligible taxpayers who received lower payments may qualify to receive more when they file their 2020 federal income tax return since the checks are technically an advance payment of a new temporary tax credit.

“Everyone should keep for their records the letter they receive by mail within a few weeks after their payment is issued,” the IRS advises on its website. According to the agency, more details on what to do will become available on IRS.gov.