It's all too easy to misplace a check. The hard part is figuring out what to do if it resurfaces months, or even years, later—perhaps after its "expiration date."

Legally, banks are only required to honor checks for six months. Beyond that, it is up to the bank’s discretion, which may include contacting the account holder for approval. The bank can also simply bounce the check without even trying to reach out, which means the depositor may get hit with a “deposit item returned” fee that can be up to $30 or more.

On the flip side, a several-months-old personal check may fall off the issuer’s radar. Practically all checking accounts have zero interest, meaning most people only keep just enough in the account to pay the bills. As a result, when the forgotten check resurfaces without warning, there may not be enough funds in the account to cover it. This is why it is always best to contact the issuer before attempting to cash a stale check. Making the call may be awkward, but accidentally slapping your grandma with a hefty overdraft fee is worse. Ask for a new check if the old one is past the six-month mark.

Key Takeaways

  • By law, banks are only required to honor checks for up to six months.
  • It’s wise to contact the issuer before attempting to cash a stale check.
  • U.S. Treasury checks are good for up to one year.
  • Traveler’s checks and domestic United States Postal Service (USPS) money orders do not expire. 

Personal Checks vs. Company-Printed Checks

Do personal checks expire more quickly than company-printed checks? Actually, there is no technical difference between these two types of checks, but the risk of triggering fees is slightly higher with personal checks, as companies are less likely to carry bare-bones balances.

Some checks come printed with text stating that a check becomes void after 90 days. This can be safely disregarded as a ploy to nudge people not to hold a check for too long; the six-month rule applies regardless of what is printed on the check.

Examples of Expiration of Checks by Type

Checks issued by the U.S. Treasury are good for one year. Make sure to cash your federal tax refund check no later than a year to the date it was issued. You can request a new check from state and federal agencies.

If you lose your state tax refund or a local government check, you’ll have to contact the agency that sent it to you. State and local governments may have their own expiration dates.

As previously mentioned, personal checks are usually valid for up to six months after the date they were issued, but you shouldn’t count on the bank to pay attention to the dates.

A money order issuer may charge fees on the order if enough time passes. Check with your issuer for guidelines.

The Bottom Line

Even if banks are only legally required to honor checks in a six-month period, it is usually a good idea to avoid any potential problems by depositing checks when you receive them. And if you fear that a check you have written has been lost or stolen, you should move promptly to cancel it with your bank.