How long is a check good for and other things to know about cashing old checks

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As the holiday season approaches, so does the influx of relatives’ holiday gift checks that appear in your mailbox only to disappear inside a coat pocket or kitchen drawer.

In an age where online and mobile banking has virtually taken over, checks can feel like relics. That’s why you may not even think about cashing in that holiday check from your grandparents until months later, or whenever you finally get around to sorting the mountain of mail you put it in.

Banks are not required to cash checks indefinitely. Instead, banks weigh their own risk when deciding whether they’ll accept your old check. So, how long is a check good for? Follow this guide to find out if you can cash your stale checks.

How long is a check generally good for?

Banks don’t have to accept checks that are more than six months old, according to the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), a set of laws governing commercial exchanges, including checks. This doesn’t mean they can’t choose to accept your check, however.

Sometimes banks will still process an old check as long as the institution believes the funds are good. A Federal Reserve regulation says a bank does not have to deposit a check if it has reason to doubt that it will be able to collect the money from the paying bank.

The rules are a bit different for certified checks, U.S. Treasury checks and money orders.

How long is a certified check good for?

The UCC guidelines that allow banks to deny checks after six months do not apply to certified checks. Although, a certified check that sits for too long may be subject to state abandoned property laws.

How long is a check issued by the U.S. Treasury good for?

Checks issued by the U.S. Treasury (such as federal tax refund checks) are void one year after the issue date. That means you may have to contact the IRS for a reissue if you find an old refund check sitting in the back of your desk drawer.

How long is a money order good for?

Money orders don’t expire, but cashing in a money order late might cost you. The company that issued the money order could charge a non-refundable fee that’s taken from the check amount if you don’t cash the money order within one to three years.

Give the check writer a heads-up

Someone who wrote a personal check is probably not prepared for the hit his checking account balance will take if you cash it months later.

Call or text the person to let him know your intent, especially if the check was issued by a friend or family member. Also, double-check that he hasn’t switched financial institutions or opened a new account before you head to your bank.

Depending on how old the check is, you may want to ask if the person will write you a new check altogether. Despite the awkwardness of revealing your check-cashing faux pas, asking for an up-to-date check can save you time at the teller’s desk and keep you from paying pesky bank fees if the check is returned.

Avoid cashing a bad check

If you try cashing old checks that bounce, you may be responsible for a “deposit item returned” fee. The fee varies from bank to bank.

At Santander Bank, you’ll generally pay $15 per check, while at Wells Fargo and Bank of America, the fee is $12. The fee might even be higher for international checks. Plus, the person who wrote the bounced check might be charged a non-sufficient funds fee from his or her own bank that could be as high as $35.

If the stale check is a nominal amount that doesn’t surpass the returned-check fee and you’re unable to contact the check writer for a new check or to make sure his account is still active, your best bet may be to forfeit the check and call it a learning experience.

You may be able to cash voided checks

The writer of your stale check may have specified “void after 90 days” or something similar on the check when he issued it to you. This doesn’t necessarily mean your bank won’t cash the check after that period, though.

A court decision in the case of Aliaga Medical Center, S.C. v. Harris Bank N.A. found that banks can retrieve funds after the issuer’s requested void period unless that person specifically instructed his bank not to honor the check after that time frame.

With that said, if the check was a gift from your great aunt Jane who’s living on a fixed income, you might be better off honoring her request. You could end up responsible for the deposit item return fee if the reason she wrote the notice was because the funds would no longer be available after those 90 days.

Cash your checks when you receive them

Since most major banks offer the mobile deposit option, there’s little reason to leave your checks in the pile of mail.

To save both you and the check writer the inconvenience of uncovering a forgotten check months later, take advantage of mobile deposit the next time someone breaks out his or her checkbook. The person will appreciate the courtesy, and you can get to spending (or saving) your money more quickly by ensuring your bank won’t have any issue retrieving the funds.

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