You'd be hard-pressed to find an adult who hasn't joked that "the check is in the mail," even if it's only on its way to the mail receptacle. But it's no laughing matter if you fear that a check that has been mailed now may be lost – "lost" being the operative word.
Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules that define exactly when a check is lost in the mail, but the United States Postal Service's protocols can guide you. These protocols can help you decide when to stop payment on the check you've written, for which you will pay a fee. You may be unhappy about the prospect of paying between $15 and $35, but it can put your mind at ease over that missing-in-action check and allow you to start the transaction all over again.
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Follow "The Sooner, The Better" Rule
As much as you will have to rely on your good judgment from this point on, make no mistake about one thing: You can stop payment on a check anytime before it has been cashed, Legal Match says. This is your right as the payer. And it makes at least one scenario perfectly tenable: You write a check – say, to a business – place it in the mail and then realize the next day that the amount was incorrect, either shy of the amount due or too much.
Rather than write another check for the difference or wait for a partial refund, you can stop payment for the full amount of the check. Arguably, the sooner you do so, the better: Once the recipient cashes the check, the stop-payment option will no longer be available to you, Value Penguin says. The clock will have run out.
If you pursue this option, it would be good form on your part to alert the check recipient that you've stopped payment. The heads-up will spare him a trip to the bank.
Check Lost in Mail
Arguably, this isn't even the best-case scenario. That would be an instance where you wrote a check with an incorrect amount to someone you know and trust. In this case, you could simply call the person and ask him to rip up the check so you can send another with the correct amount. But businesses don't operate this way. And if you monitor your checking account online – or worse, are assessed a late fee on a check that hasn't arrived – you're right to be concerned.
So how much time should pass before you stop payment on a check? When is it safe to assume that a check is lost in the mail? The U.S. Postal Service allows consumers to submit search requests for missing pieces of mail, but you have to bide your time. "For most mail classes, the package must be lost for at least seven days from the date of mailing," the service says.
Again, this is only a guideline. Rather than being lost, the check may be delayed. And when the postal service is struggling through episodes of mass illness or labor shortages, it's entirely plausible that an envelope mailed domestically could take more than seven days to arrive. So take the "seven-day guideline," factor in any possible extenuating circumstances and decide when you think it's the right time to stop payment on a check.
Stop Payment in a Matter of Minutes
When the time comes, look up your account one more time to see if the check has cleared. If it hasn't, gather several pieces of information before you call your bank:
- Your checking account number
- The check number
- The date of the check
- The amount of the check
- The recipient
Before you talk with a bank representative, you may wish to jot down the answers to a few questions worth asking:
- How much does the bank charge to block the check from clearing?
- Does the bank charge more for handling the request over the phone vs. online (as some banks do)?
- Do you still have to fill out and submit a stop payment request online, as a means of verification?
You may also wish to ask when the stop payment request will expire. Many banks will keep it in effect for six months, after which time you can renew it. But this would be a moot point since most banks put a six-month time limit on cashing checks anyway, which they denote with the words "void after 180 days." It's not exactly a form of "stopping payment," but rather a way to expedite the processing of a check. And by this point, you will have mastered an important part of the procedure, too.