As the holiday season approaches, so does the influx of relatives’ holiday gift checks that appear in your mailbox only to quickly disappear inside a coat pocket or kitchen drawer.
And in an age where online and mobile banking have virtually taken over, checks can feel like relics.
That’s why you may not even think about cashing in that holiday check from Grandma until months later, or whenever you finally get around to sorting the mountain of mail you put it in.
But when you do find an old check, what should you do with it? Follow this guide to ensure you get your cash.
Give the check writer a heads-up
First thing’s first: Whoever wrote the check probably isn’t prepared for the hit their checking balance will take if you cash it months later.
Call or text them to let them know your intent, especially if the check was issued by a friend or family member.
Depending on how old the check actually is, you may want to ask if they will write you a new check. 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.
Know that check expiration dates are flexible
There are no federal laws that require banks to cash checks indefinitely. Instead, banks weigh their own risk when deciding whether they’ll accept your old check.
According to the Uniform Commercial Code, a set of laws governing commercial exchanges, including checks, banks are don’t have to accept checks that are more than six months old. This doesn’t mean they can’t do so, however.
Similarly, the Federal Reserve’s Regulation CC says a bank does not have to deposit a check if it has reasonable doubt — such as if the check is old — as to whether the paying bank will pay the money.
Without any reasonable doubt that the payment will be denied from the issuing institution, banks will sometimes still process an old check.
“Typically an unaccepted check that’s really old is due to the fact that the bank’s account numbering or routing numbers have changed in that time,” says Nick Simpson, a representative from Consumer Bankers Association.
To alleviate any skepticism, ensure your check’s issuer hasn’t switched financial institutions or opened a new account before you head to your bank.
Don’t cash a bad check
If you attempt to cash a stale check that bounces, you may be responsible for a “deposit item returned” fee. The fee varies from bank to bank. At Santander Bank, for example, you’ll generally pay $15, while at Wells Fargo and Bank of America, the fee is $12.
For international checks, these fees can double.
If the stale check is a nominal amount that doesn’t surpass the fee and you’re unable to contact the check writer for a new check or to make sure their 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 they issued it to you. This doesn’t necessarily mean your bank won’t cash the check after that period, though.
Unless the check issuer specifically instructed their bank not to honor the check after that time period, your bank will likely still be able to retrieve the funds. However, if the reason for the void notice was because the funds would no longer be available in the issuer’s account after that period, you could end up responsible for the fee.
Again, it’s probably in your best interest to contact the person who wrote the check to make sure.
Certified checks are treated differently
Standard practice is a little different for certified checks, or those that are guaranteed and backed by a financial institution. This applies to traveler’s checks and money orders as well.
The UCC guidelines that allow banks to deny stale checks after six months do not apply to these types of checks.
There are outstanding circumstances, like abandoned property laws or bankruptcy, but in general, you should be able to cash any certified check even years after it was issued.
Cash your checks when you receive them
As mobile deposit options become a staple of the online banking experience for millions of consumers, 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 their checkbook. They 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.
Related: Check out Bankrate’s best checking accounts.