How Long Do You Have to Cash a Check

Updated on September 26, 2022 Reviewed by Nathan Brown, CFP

If not noted or specified, you have up to 6 months to clear a check.

Checks have a sell-by date, they go stale, they can expire. The drawer, even if the check goes old and lapses, still has the obligation to pay. 

When a person fails to cash in a check, it immediately becomes an “outstanding check.” This may cause inflated account balances for the drawer as well as complications in their business’ finances. Drawers are recommended to have records on all their checks — and, if the amount is large enough to cause problems, they are advised to have a cut-off date for that specific check. Once the cut-off date comes,  they should ask the bank for a stop payment order.

Why are Checks Not Cashed

For several reasons: 

  • No urgency: payees don’t need the cash desperately.
  • Falling through the cracks: checks are sometimes archived wrong or simply misplaced.
  • Delivery problems: a payee’s address changes and the check never reaches them.

A total of 16 billion checks were written in the United States in 2018 — for a combined value of $26.2 trillion. 23% of them weren’t cash. 11% had expired.

Why Cash a Check ASAP?

There are multiple reasons, aside from expiration, why you should cash a check“pronto”. 

  • Insufficient fund: the drawer, presumably, has enough in the bank for your payment the day they handed you the check. Most folks don’t expect a check to pop up 6 months later — and most folks have really bad accounting practices. If you don’t cash your check as soon as you get it, you might find out that the drawer already used up those funds for something else. 
  • Void after 90 (or 180) days: some checks do have an expedition date and, in most cases, banks will respect them
  • Closed accounts: the business or person might have switched financial institutions. 
  • Stop Payments: if a drawer starts to get antsy they may stop payment on a check, for various reasons. They might be worried the check was lost or they might no longer have enough funds, or they might simply be confused regarding why they wrote the check in the first place.

A Stale Check — How Long is a Check Good For?

Personal Checks 

Checks written to you have a 6 month grace period. Unless you have a certified check or government-issued checks it is critical to deposit a check as soon as you get it. The main reason, aside from the monetary, is that it lets the drawer know that you’ve collected their money and prevents confusion at the bank. 

The Uniform Commercial Code, the guidebook most banks live and die by, states that financial institutions are not required to honor old checks.

6 months is the average cut-off date, BUT, some banks are a bit looser with their practices and may still deposit the check even after this grace period — most of the time, they might call up the drawer and ask for their permission before proceeding.

Cashiers Checks

Cashier checks are a bit more complex because they are subjected to state and national laws. Those checks are under federal control and need to be deposited within 90 days. After the 3 month grace period the issuing bank could return the check. 

If you have a cashier check that has grown musty in your drawers, the best thing you could do is contact the issuing bank and ask them to issue a new one. 

U.S. Treasury Checks

Checks that come directly from Uncle Sam or more to the point from the federal government – stimulus checks, income tax refunds, veteran affairs, interest payments, defense finance, accounting service, DOD administration, etc – have a varying timeline with a clear expiration date. Each state and local government has a different shelf life for their checks — this does not mean that once that day has come they won’t honor your pay, it just means you’ll have to contact them and get a replacement check.

Check with your local government if you’re unsure of your Treasury Check’s expiration date — like personal checks, most agencies work under the 6-month grace period. Nonetheless, some checks may be fresh for up to a year.

Most checks of this type have a tiny imprint in them that tells you the expiration date — a disclaimer that might read: “void after x days.”

Traveler’s Checks

Traveler’s checks don’t expire. Why? Because they are a form of currency — in a way. They can always be refunded, or cashed in. As long as the institution that issued them is still in business, Traveler checks can be used wherever they are accepted.

Money Orders

Money orders, like Western Union, don’t expire unless the sender cancels them. USPS orders, for example, are good indefinitely. One thing you do have to consider is that certain services have charging fees for cashing late money orders. Most money orders, after 3 days, start to rack up a surcharge — this, in turn, erodes the order’s initial value. 

If you have an old money order, it’s better to contact the sender and cancel it — then have them issue a new one. Unclaimed money orders, depending on the service’s clause, are either returned to the sender after a set period or turned over to the state. 

The Short History

A cheque is in fact a document/ negotiable instrument or instruction to a specific institution. The person writing the cheque or check – the drawer – normally has a transaction account at a bank where most of their money is held. The drawer opens a document that includes the amount, date, and payee’s name and signs it — this is a legal document that informs the bank to hand over part of the drawer’s cash to the payee.

The whole concept of the cheque is as old as the ancient banking system. Back in those bygone days, such a device was called the bill of exchange. This bill facilitated the trading of goods, like gold, services, and food, by basically eliminating the need to carry large amounts of currencies. The earliest evidence of a cheque was in India during the Maurya Empire, from there, it was adopted by the Romans and Persians. Carrying, creating, and clearing checks became the go-to standard in commerce. 

The first check, as we know it today – the printed version – was introduced in the United States towards the latter half of the 17th century. It was partly invented by British banker Lawrence Childs. Up until that point, checks were nothing more than IOUs — written by hand and on whatever paper you had handy.

Child’s understood that commerce was starting to pick up and that, for trade to succeed, something besides “the word” or “good standing” of a citizen had to back up payable contracts. When you received a hand-drawn check, you had to place your trust in that person, in the fact that they had funds in the institution in question. What Childs did, with his printed checks, is shift part of the burden of payment to the bank. The financial institution would hand their printed checks with serial numbers tied to a client’s account and holdings and find themselves linked to the operation. This served as a legally binding contract between payee and drawer, a contract that as of the 17th, now had the oversight of the bank. This partly meant that banks now had to share part of the responsibility when it came to paying out — until the mid 20th century this translated to the bank being able to withhold a drawer’s deposits to fund the check and recompense the payee.

This is no longer the case, now, banks charge for bounced checks. They also deduct from their client’s FICO scores punishment for passing bad checks.  

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