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Do personal checks "expire"?

Do personal checks ever expire? I was told at my local bank branch that a personal check over six months old is expired. However, when I called my bank's national number and spoke to someone there, they told me that personal checks never expire.

It's really a matter of semantics, but "expire" is really the wrong word to describe what happens to a check that's more than six months old. There used to be a term -- stale dated -- that applied to a check that's reached the ripe old age of six months. Many banks still use that term, but it means something a little different from what many people were told many years ago.

After a check is six months old, the bank that it's drawn on has the legal authority to either pay the check -- if there's no current stop payment order on the check -- or to bounce the check for the date. If it bounces the check, the bank's customer cannot fault the bank for wrongfully dishonoring it. If it pays the check, the customer cannot claim the bank shouldn't have paid it -- if there's no stop order in effect.

From a practical perspective, if you've issued a check that's now more than six months old, you need to decide whether you want to risk that it will be paid before you add the check amount back to your checkbook balance. If you want to hedge that bet and ensure it won't be paid, put a stop order on it, and renew the order every six months until you are reasonably assured it won't show up (or you're willing to take the risk). There's a cost for the stop order, so keep that in mind when deciding.

If you're holding a check payable to you that's stale dated, you're taking a chance if you deposit it and spend the money right away, because the bank it's drawn on can bounce it. You should consider contacting whoever gave you the check and ask for a replacement.

Published on 9/13/06