Check Expiration and Cancellation Rules You Should Know About

Did you know banks aren't obligated to pay personal checks that are more than six months old? Here's what to keep in mind when it comes to cashing checks.

So you found a personal check from 2011 that you never cashed. Is it too late to deposit it?

It's happened to many of us: A birthday check from Great Aunt Tilly goes AWOL, only to be found months—or years—later in your junk drawer. While your first instinct might be to cash it, bear this in mind: A bank is not required to pay a check that's more than six months old. The Uniform Commercial Code says banks are under no obligation to accept checks, personal or business, more than 180 days old.

"It's ultimately up to the discretion of each bank whether to accept a check," says L.H. Wilson of the American Bankers Association. When you bring an old check to the bank; it could be accepted, rejected, or held until the teller can speak to the person who wrote it.

According to Bankrate, some banks will process old checks if they believe the funds are still available to cover the payment. However, government regulations make clear that banks do not have to deposit a check if they have any doubt about being able to collect from the issuing bank.

That said, cashier's checks (in case you have one of those stashed away, too) do not necessarily follow the same expiration rules as personal checks. Their guidelines are slightly vaguer, and they don't necessarily have a specified expiration date. Often these types of checks are backed by the bank that issued them and should be valid as long as the bank is still in business. Still, some banks print an expiration date on their checks ranging from 60 to 180 days.

The takeaway is: If you stumble across an old check, reach out to your bank (or in the case of a cashier's check, the issuing bank) and verify their current policy.

Of course, legalities aren't the only concern. Common courtesy matters, too—particularly with personal checks. "When someone writes a check, she expects it to be cashed immediately," says Jeffory Stukey, owner of Wichita Wealth Management, LLC, in Wichita, Kansas. After a lot of time has passed, the money may not be available, says Stukey, since many people keep enough in checking for just a month's expenses.

By quietly depositing this check, you could accidentally empty the check writer's account. Wouldn't it be awful if your great aunt's kind gesture were rewarded with a hefty overdraft fee?

Overdraft challenges are not the only concern: You also run the risk of the account number or routing numbers having been changed over the many months that have elapsed.

If the check is for a small sum (say, $20 or under), you may want to just chuck it. For a larger amount, contact the check writer to ask if it's acceptable to cash it, says Sue Fox, founder of Etiquette Survival, a professional development company in Pleasanton, California. If the bank then rejects the check, it's fine to call the check writer and ask for a new one. And in the future, remember it's always best practice to cash a check right away to avoid any problems.

One last note: Be sure to follow up by sending a thank-you card to the person who wrote you the check. And this time, be quick about it.

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