January 19, 2021
Is the US still in a coronavirus recession? Here's what to know as the stimulus check debate lags

Yep, your second stimulus check may be smaller if…


If a second check goes through, you may not get the full $1,200 per adult.

Angela Lang/CNET

If a new stimulus bill approves a second direct payment in 2020 (unlikely) or in 2021 (much more likely), there will be some people who may get more money in another check, some who get less and some who will find they don’t qualify at all

You can catch up on the current status of stimulus negotiations here. In the meantime, we’ll fill you in on everything you need to know about why you might get a smaller check the next time around, whenever the next one might come for your particular payment group.

The reason you might get less in a second check than the first, or less than your neighbors and relatives, comes down to two main causes. Either the qualifications will change as part of a new bill, or some life circumstance will shift and the stimulus check formula won’t work in your favor

Here’s what we know so far. We frequently update this story.

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Next stimulus checks: What to expect


One key fact to know about your second stimulus check

In the first round of stimulus checks, the IRS for the most part used your most recent federal tax return (2019 0r 2018) when calculating your total payment (people who don’t ordinarily file tax returns were in many cases eligible as well). But some people who qualified for a check have experienced personal or financial changes after filing that could affect a future payment one way or another. 

Do you have a new job? Or did you earn more overall this year?

Your adjusted gross income, or AGI, is a term normally used for the IRS’ yearly tax return to describe your total income, including assets (like stock sales, credits and deductions or an inheritance, for example) that fall outside your usual paycheck. The first stimulus check, and most likely the second, will cut you off if your AGI goes above a certain income limit.

There’s a huge correlation between your tax status and stimulus checks, and any change in your AGI could increase or reduce the size of your check.

For instance, if you received the full $1,200 per qualified adult with the first stimulus check because your AGI was under the income limit, but then you got a promotion or a new job that pays more (congratulations), then your check may be smaller next time — since the IRS pays out on a sliding scale — or you may have maxed out the threshold and no longer qualify. All told, this is a “good” problem to have.


Kids grow up, and you could be out $500 per child.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Do you have fewer child dependents now than you did earlier this year?

Age is an important factor in how much stimulus money a household gets, but maybe not like you think. Older adults are in many cases entitled to a stimulus check. In the first round of direct payments, households were given an extra $500 for each “child dependent.” This is a legal minor who is 16 years old or younger. 

Interestingly, the IRS’ definition of a child dependent for your taxes (23 or under, and financially reliant on the tax filer) isn’t the same set of terms used for stimulus checks. 

If the rules stay the same (and there’s some indication they may not), any older dependents you claimed for the first check may have aged out of eligibility, which means you could get $500 less if rules stay the same.

Did you change how you claim your dependents, or do you owe back child support?

For the most part, any stimulus check you receive you have full rights to use as you like. However, one exception laid out in the CARES Act from March was child support. If you owe child support to your kid’s other parent, you may have some or all of your stimulus check garnished. If you received an extra $500 for the way you and the other parent filed a dependency claim (it’s complicated), and then changed how you filed in your 2019 tax reserve (for example, if the other parent gained full custody), you may not get the extra $500. Here’s more information about child support situations.

Do you owe any debt to private banks or creditors?

Normally, your stimulus money can’t be garnished to pay rent or federal tax. There are a few exceptions, however, including the child support situation above. If these rules don’t change with the next stimulus bill, then there are two groups — private creditors and banks — who could legitimately seize all or part of your money from the first, and likely the second, check.


A few entities are allowed to seize your stimulus money.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Why you may be disqualified if certain stimulus rules change

Since the terms of the second stimulus check aren’t finalized yet — and won’t be until the sitting president signs a bill into law — it isn’t clear how they may or may not change. There’s also the way that the IRS may interpret the law and act or withhold stimulus money. For example, after the CARES Act was signed in March, the IRS first sent people in prison and jail a stimulus check, then asked for it back and stopped issuing new checks. A recent ruling from a federal judge has started them up again. 

If this law, and others regarding citizenship status in the US, US territories or abroad, were to change, it could make someone who was eligible to receive the first payment disqualified for a second check. 

Did you update the IRS with your new address if you moved?

If you moved as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and haven’t filed a change of address form with the USPS or IRS (a good measure to take), the agency may not know where to send a paper check or EIP card. If you received your first stimulus delivery through direct deposit, the IRS will likely go that route again. If you changed bank accounts, you may run into a holdup or need to contact the IRS to file a further claim.

If the IRS makes an error or you miss a step, you’ll probably have to file a claim to get your check

It happened with the first check and could easily happen with the next. Clerical errors and complex rules might result in your household getting less money in a future second stimulus check than you might really be entitled to — for you and your dependents. Or maybe you don’t normally need to file taxes and wind up missing a rare extra step you need to take. Perhaps you moved (see above). 

Whatever the reason, if some issue prevents you from receiving all or part of your stimulus money, you should be able to claim a rebate payment. The IRS is currently sorting through these stimulus payment omissions now for a wide range of groups, and will likely do so again if a second check comes to be.

Has anyone in your family passed away since you last filed taxes?

Our condolences. If your household received a stimulus check that included a spouse or child dependent who died between your last tax filing and the receipt of the second stimulus check, the IRS is likely to send a smaller sum if your tax filing status, deductions, credits or AGI changed. If the person is recently deceased (by the time the next check arrives), the IRS asks for the payment to be returned.

For more on stimulus, here’s what Biden could do if another stimulus bill doesn’t go through by the time he becomes president, and everything you need to know about stimulus checks.

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