By Kristina Russo | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
5 Min Read | September 22, 2020 in Money
For a long time, writing a check was the standard way to pay many businesses or individuals. Fast forward to today: I write checks so seldomly that sometimes I forget how to do it. Like most Americans, I now swipe, chip, or click my way through most transactions. While credit cards and other digital payment methods are faster, more secure, and more universally accepted than checks, there are still businesses that prefer them and so you’ll need to learn – or remember – how to write a personal check. I’ll take you through the six steps to properly write a check.
Every check needs to be dated, using the designated space in the upper right-hand corner. You need to write the month, date, and year in that space, either in words – October 25, 2020 – or numerals – 10/25/2020. Experts recommend using the four-digit year, to deter possible date tampering. Unlike electronic payments, the check date is not the date the recipient will be paid, but instead it starts the clock running for available payment. Six months after that written date, personal checks are considered “stale dated” and therefore void.
However, take note: While it was once a common practice to “post-date” a check, using a future date to prevent someone from cashing the check before then, banks are not required to check the date, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.1 Some states require them to do so, but only when you notify the bank in advance not to cash a particular check until a certain date.
Every check has a preprinted line that begins “Pay to the Order of.” That’s where you’ll write in the name of the person or business you’re sending the money. Though straightforward, you may have to check on the exact payee name. Often, businesses will indicate who to make checks payable to on their invoices. The payee, or multiple payees, must endorse the check in order to present it for payment. If there are multiple payees, you’ll want to intentionally choose between “and” or “or” – in the first case, they all must sign but in the second only one is necessary.
You can also write out a check to “Cash,” meaning anyone who has the check can immediately receive cash when they deposit it at the bank. But this can be risky, and most experts advise against it in case the check falls into unintended hands.
When writing a check, you’ll fill out the amount twice – once numerically and once in words. There is a box on the right side of the check, under the date, to write the amount of the check in numbers. Typically, the box has a pre-printed dollar sign ($), so you don’t need to write that. When writing out the amount, carry the number out to two decimals, using proper currency punctuation like commas and periods – for example, 1,234.00.
Check fraud happens sometimes. And when it does, it’s often because the amount has been changed. To help avoid this, start your numerical amount up against the left-hand side of the box, and add a dash if there is leftover space in the box to the right of the numerals.
Below the payee is a long line that ends with the pre-printed word “Dollars.” That’s where you will write out the amount of the check using words. It’s important to do this step correctly, because in the event there is some discrepancy between the numerical amount and the written amount, banking rules accept the written amount as correct.
If you’re paying $100.50, start at the left side of the line and write “One hundred and 50/100.” If there are no cents, it’s still important to write “and no cents,” or “00/100,” for clarity. You don’t need to write the word “dollars” since it’s preprinted at the end of the line. Some additional examples:
You may notice that the line for the written value is the longest one on the check, and you might need all that space. If you don’t, experts advise filling in any leftover space with a dash that is as long as you need to reach the pre-printed word “Dollars” at the end.
In the bottom left hand side of the check you’ll find a blank line with the word “Memo” at the beginning. This space is optional, typically used to add a note to help the recipient know, or remind your future self, what the check is for, like “November rent” or “invoice #1234.”
A check is considered correctly written even with a blank memo line. Interestingly, the memo line is the only place on the front of a check where it is acceptable for someone other than you to write something. Often, businesses will write in an invoice number on your memo line when they are processing your check.
Banks are not required to honor an unsigned check, so this step is critically important when writing out a check. In fact, unsigned checks are often flagged by banks for potential fraud. Sign your check on the line at the bottom right using the form of your name that matches the name on your checking account, including middle initials or suffixes like “Jr.” for junior. Prefixes like Mr. or Ms. are not used.
On the flip side, an otherwise blank check that only has your signature gives the holder of that check unlimited access to funds in your checking account. So, signing should be the final step when writing a check, after all the other information has been completed.
Knowing how to write a check is still important, even in this world of credit cards and digital wallets. Following these six steps will help you do it properly and safely. So, get out your pen and practice – no pencils allowed in this process.