What is Pay To Bearer?

Pay to bearer means that the individual who is in the physical possession of said instrument, be it a check, draft or bond, can receive the funds due on it without the need of an endorsement. Since pay to bearer instruments are not registered in the name of a specific owner, they will pay to whoever bears them.

Key Takeaways

  • Pay to bearer means that the individual who is in the physical possession of said instrument, be it a check, draft or bond, can receive the funds due on it without the need of an endorsement.
  • Bearer bonds and bearer checks are common pay to bearer instruments.
  • Pay to bearer instruments make the payment process easier, but they increase the risk of unintended individuals getting access to the payee's funds.

Understanding Pay To Bearer

As the name implies, pay to bearer refers to any negotiable instrument paid to the bearer without requiring proof of identity. Records are not kept of the bearer instrument’s owner or transactions involving the transfer of ownership. Whoever holds the bearer instrument is considered its owner and is entitled to its payments and/or dividends.

While pay to bearer instruments make the payment process easier, there is an obvious risk associated with these, namely if the intended bearer lost the physical documentation of the negotiable instrument then the payee's funds would go to the individual who found this negotiable instrument.

Pay-to-Bearer Instruments

Bearer bond: This type of instrument is a fixed-income security issued by a corporation or government. The bearer bond pays interest for each detachable coupon redeemed, regardless of who redeems them. No ownership information is recorded. The security gets issued in physical form and the holder is considered the owner.

The history of bearer bonds is thought to date back to the late 1800s, when they were used to fund infrastructure projects. They could be issued in large values, which made them preferable to cash for sizable transactions. Due to their anonymity and ease of transfer, bearer bonds were increasingly used for tax evasion and money laundering during the 20th century. To combat this, the United States banned the issuance of new bearer bonds in 1982. U.S. corporations can still issue their bonds into the European market as euro-bonds, which get issued as bearer bonds. (For further reading, see: Bearer Bonds: From Popular to Prohibited.)

Bearer Check: A bearer check does not have the word “bearer” canceled out. This means the check can be made payable to the bearer, i.e., payable to the person or company who presents it to the bank for encashment. Even though no identification is required to cash bearer checks, it is standard practice for most banks to require some form of identification if the check is for a substantial amount.

For example, an individual might be asked to provide their driver’s license or Social Security number if they wanted to cash a bearer check over $10,000. Banks also require the person who cashes a bearer check to sign its back, which they use as evidence that the person has cashed it. Bearer checks are different than pay-to-order checks in that the latter can only be cashed by the person or company named on the check. (For more: How to Write a Check in 6 Easy Steps.)