Someone recently asked me whether or not checks really do expire. The answer is yes and no.
In theory, checks that are more than 6 months old are “stale-dated.” You’ll see this marked on checks from businesses, generally saying it’s not valid after 6 months. I believe that the bank is supposed to honor that on business checks. But when it comes to personal checks, they may or may not be cashable.
There are no laws preventing a bank from honoring a check even if it’s 7 months old. Or, because it’s stale-dated, the bank is within its rights to refuse to cash the check.
If you’ve written a check more than 6 months ago and it still hasn’t been cashed, it’s in your best interests to either a) make sure you’ve always got enough to cover that check in your checking account or b) get in touch with the person you paid and offer to write them a new check.
Don’t put yourself in a situation where an old check may overdraw your bank account. Being overdrawn can show up on your chex report, which will impact your ability to open checking accounts in other places. This is one reason why it’s so important to keep track of the checks you write–whether in a check register or in YNAB or in Quicken or just in a spreadsheet. Make sure you also mark off when the check cleared.
If you’re on the other side of the balance and have a check that’s more than 6 months old, talk to the issuer about getting a new one. You can try depositing it, but be aware that it might bounce. It’s worth asking someone at your bank what happens if you deposit a check that bounces.
If you haven’t withdrawn the money, you should be fine. But if have less in your account than the check is worth, you may end up becoming overdrawn yourself if it bounces. (This is worth remembering every time you deposit a check, since even unexpired checks may bounce. I once worked for a small business owner who bounced a week’s paychecks because he messed up his payroll. We got them worked out, but the last thing I expected to bounce was my paycheck.)
To sum up:
1) If you write a check, make sure you always have the money to cover it until it clears.
2) If you cash a check, don’t spend the money until it’s cleared.
Overdraft fees are nobody’s friend and they’re only getting worse in this economy. Play it safe when it comes to writing and cashing checks, always make sure that you’re covered.