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How to Claim Missing Stimulus Money on Your 2020 Tax Return

Use the Recovery Rebate Credit worksheet to calculate how much you are due

spinner image IRS instructions to claim stimulus on 2020 taxes sits on a background of green dollar bills
IRS; iStock / Getty Images

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued about 160 million stimulus checks to eligible Americans for the first round of economic impact payments (EIP) that began in April. Millions more payments, dubbed EIP 2, started going out in late December for the second round of stimulus. Nevertheless, some people never got their first-round stimulus checks, while others didn't receive the full amount to which they were entitled. The same will be true for the second round of stimulus payments.

If you didn't receive money from the first or second round of stimulus payments — or you didn't get the full amount you should have — don't give up. You'll need to file the standard 1040 federal tax return form, or the 1040-SR tax return for people 65 or older, to get your missing stimulus money in the form of a tax credit that will either lower the amount of tax you owe or increase the size of your refund. 

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Why you may be missing stimulus money

The first round of stimulus checks, mandated by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, was signed into law in March 2020. The CARES Act gave a maximum $1,200 per person and $500 per eligible dependent child under 17. Payments were limited by 2019 or 2018 income as reported on federal income tax forms. Individuals who had more than $75,000 in adjusted gross income had their stimulus check reduced by $5 for every $100 of income, and the same was true for married couples filing jointly with income above $150,000. Individuals who earned more than $99,000 and couples who earned more than $198,000 jointly did not receive checks.

The second round of stimulus checks gives a maximum $600 per eligible person and dependent child. Married couples who filed jointly in 2019 receive $1,200 total ($600 apiece). Families get an additional $600 for each eligible dependent child under 17. The income limits are the same for the second round of stimulus payments as they were for the first, though the phaseout amounts are lower since the maximum payment is $600 vs. $1,200 during the first round. Individuals who earned more than $87,000 and couples who earned more than $174,000 jointly won't receive second-round checks. The deadline for the IRS to issue second-round payments is Jan. 15.

Income limits are one reason you might not have gotten your first stimulus check, or that your first stimulus check wasn't as much as you thought it should be. For example, the IRS used 2019 tax returns to calculate the amount of some stimulus checks. If you lost your job in 2020, your 2019 income may have been too high for you to get a full check, or even any payment at all. Your 2020 tax return gives you a chance to get whatever amount you're still owed.

Many people who automatically received the first round of stimulus checks because they were getting federal benefits from the Social Security Administration or Department of Veterans Affairs may not have gotten stimulus payments for their dependent children. Others may have run into snafus with the online Enter Payment Here tool on 

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Other reasons for not getting a stimulus check

  • You had or adopted a baby in 2020. The IRS used 2018 or 2019 tax returns to calculate stimulus payments. If you gained another member of your family in 2020 who is eligible for the stimulus payment, you're entitled to a $500 credit from the first stimulus round, and $600 for the second.
  • Your income fell in 2020, so you got less than you should be entitled to, based on your higher 2019 income.
  • You weren't required to file a tax return in 2019 or 2018 and didn't use the online IRS tool to register your bank information. (The tool is now closed.)

If you're a married couple filing jointly, and only one of you had a valid Social Security number, no one in your family was eligible for the first round of stimulus payments. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 14.4 million individuals in mixed-status families are ineligible for the first stimulus check. That requirement was eliminated from the second round of stimulus checks, however, and filing taxes for 2020 will get you the second-round payment.

Missing stimulus money? Claim the Recovery Rebate Credit

Technically, stimulus payments are an advance on a tax credit for the 2020 tax year. The IRS calls this credit the Recovery Rebate Credit. Unlike a tax deduction, which reduces your taxable income (and therefore your tax payment), a tax credit reduces the amount of tax you owe, dollar for dollar. Even better, and unlike most credits, the Recovery Rebate Credit will give you money back even if it's more than the tax you owe or paid. For example, if you owe $700 in federal income taxes for 2020, a $1,200 stimulus tax credit would net you a $500 tax refund.

You need to file federal tax form 1040 or 1040-SR for 2020 to claim your Recovery Rebate Credit. You'll also need your IRS Notice 1444, the letter the IRS should have sent to you a few days after you got your first stimulus check, and IRS Notice 1444-B, which you would have gotten after your second stimulus check. If you didn't get a stimulus check, you don't need either notice.

spinner image screenshot of a portion of the i r s recovery rebate credit worksheet
Use the Recovery Rebate Credit worksheet on page 59 of the IRS instructions for the 1040 or 1040-SR to calculate how much stimulus money you're entitled to for the credit.

You can file a 1040 or 1040-SR even if you didn't earn enough income to require filing a federal tax return. If you earned no money in 2020, simply put down zero as your income on Line 1. Then proceed to the Recovery Rebate Credit worksheet on page 59 of the instructions for the 1040 or 1040-SR, where you can figure how much money you're entitled to for the credit. Remember, even if you owed no taxes or paid no taxes in 2020, you still might be eligible for the first and second stimulus payments, as well as any payments for eligible dependent children.

The worksheet for the credit will tell you whether you're eligible, and how much more you're entitled to if you didn't get the full amount. Although the one-page, 21-line worksheet looks intimidating, it essentially walks you through calculating whether you're entitled to a stimulus credit, and how much that credit is. The amount from the Recovery Rebate Credit worksheet goes on line 30 of your 1040 form. If you aren't entitled to a Recovery Rebate Credit, leave line 30 blank.

You have nothing to lose by filing a tax return for your stimulus payment. The credit won't increase your taxes or reduce your refund. The second stimulus payment can't be seized by creditors or garnished by the government for nonpayment of child support. And, the IRS says, if your adjusted gross income is less than $72,000, you can use its Free File service at no charge to calculate your credit and file a tax return electronically.

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