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I received a long awaited check today (USA) written for $X. For complicated reasons (we had some dispute about how much was owed for what), I only want to accept $Y from this person for this service, where Y < X. In other words, I want less money than they are offering me. And I don't want to have to deal with getting another check from them; this one took me much too long as it is.

Can I go to a bank and say please only take $Y from the other account with this check? Clearly the other person is willing to give me $Y since they are willing to give me $X. I'm just declining to accept the difference. Is that legal/allowed? (Note: I am not trying to save the difference for later. I'm willing to decline it permanently.)

If I put it in an ATM and record the amount as $Y would anyone even notice?

Is there any solution besides having the other person send me a new check written for $Y? It feels like there should be.

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    "It feels like there should be." Why? After all, when someone sends you money via PayPal, is there any way to only accept part of it? – RonJohn Jan 22 at 2:31
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    @RonJohn If someone allows you to take cash from their mattress, is there any way to only take part of it? Of course. Maybe PayPal or any other system never bothered to build in this feature despite its occasional usefulness, maybe they did. Hence my question. – Partial Fraction Jan 22 at 2:32
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    @PartialFraction why are you even posting a question if you're not ready to accept the possibility that's it's not possible? Many people told you it's not possible and you keep telling them that there must be a way to do this. Call your bank and ask them, they'll tell you the same. – Simon Arsenault Jan 22 at 13:08
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    Additionally this is a big hallmark of a scam, they send you a bad check for $X + $Y dollars and have you send $Y back to them or on to someone else. In a week when the original check bounces you are out the money you got and the money you sent on. Unless you are well aquatinted with this person, be very careful. – Ukko Jan 22 at 14:52
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    I am really interested in knowing why accepting $X is not an option for you. Is this on principle or do you fear some sort of legal/tax recourse for accepting the full amount? Additionally, going to the bank and asking is the only way to truly know what your options are. As we say in programming "If you want 5 different answers then ask 3 people. If you want the right answer, consult the documentation." – MonkeyZeus Jan 22 at 15:34

11 Answers 11

89

In a comment you said,

I'm not suggesting scratching anything. I don't know how banks talk to each other, but presumably my bank would just tell the other bank to please send over $800. And if they want it in pennies they'll say pennies. If you know how banks talk to each other and you know they have no way to handle this simple issue, you can answer that below (sourced if possible)

Although others have effectively answered the question (can you do this?) I am adding an answer to explain the mechanics behind why.

The check processing system in the US is based on centralized clearinghouses acting as middle-managers between different financial institutions. When someone has an account at a bank, and they write a check which is eventually cashed at that same bank, there is no middle man required - the check is "on us" and it is processed within that bank's own core system.

However, if a check is written against an account at bank A, and it is deposited or cashed at bank B, there needs to be some mechanism for A and B to communicate. This communication has two basic requirements:

  • The banks must be able to actually exchange money
  • The banks must be able to agree that the check is legitimate and they must be able to agree on exactly what the check says so that their transactions will balance

The actual order of operations is a bit complicated, mainly because of the manual nature of a check. When the customer deposits the check at B, they tell B what the details of the check are (specifically, the amount) and B makes a provisional transaction against the customer's account for that amount. Depending on the deposit mechanism, the bank may verify some details of the check at the time of the deposit (i.e. a teller will look at it and make sure you wrote the right number on the deposit slip). Usually, there is a "hold" on that deposit, until the details are verified - but in some cases, some or all of the amount is available instantly, or at least prior to the details actually being verified.

After you've deposited the check, your bank B will transmit details about the check to the central bank they use for clearing checks. These central banks will have connections to other financial institutions, and they will have a settlement account for each bank, allowing them to move money back and forth from bank to bank as checks are processed. The central bank will receive the check's details and pass them on to the bank which owns the account that the check is written against. This is facilitated via the routing number on the front of the check, in the lower right corner - the routing number tells the central bank which of it's customer banks to send the check to.

In the old days, the actual physical checks would be sent back and forth between the central banks and the financial institutions. Legislation in the early 2000's allowed banks to submit digital images of checks instead, so it all happens digitally these days - if you give a paper check to your depositing bank, they will just scan it and use the digital copy as the source of truth.

So - after the central bank receives the check details (which consist of a financial transaction with the depositing bank plus the actual digital image of the check itself), they pass that info on to the issuing bank. The issuing bank basically gets a message that says,

Your customer gave $800 to someone at Bank B. Here is an image of the check. Please verify the check and give us the $800 so we can settle with Bank B.

Bank A loads all of these messages and images into their check processing system, they make sure they own the account listed on the check, and perform other basic fraud and identity verification processes. Then, they create a financial transaction in their own core system which removes the money from their customer's account and deposits the money in their clearing account with the central bank.

Once that process has happened, the check is considered cleared and the central bank moves the money from Bank A's clearing account to bank B's clearing account, in addition to sending a message back to Bank B to let them know that the check cleared. At that point, Bank B will release the hold on the transaction in the account that their customer deposited the check, and the whole job is done.

When Bank A receives the transaction and the image of the check, they may find that things don't look right to them. Maybe the account number doesn't exist, or there isn't enough money in the account, or the check looks fake, or anything else fails their processing rules. In that case, they would transmit a message back to the central bank that the check is not legitimate, and the central bank would pass that message on to Bank B, and Bank B would cancel the deposit transaction into their customer's account. Rejected transactions for insufficient funds are straightforward, but rejected transactions for just about any other reason are often logged into a fraud management system to give the bank another data point to help stop check fraud.

Sometimes, Bank A may take a very long time to clear the check, and Bank B may release the hold automatically after a certain number of days even though the check hasn't been cleared. This is worth noting because some times, the check will bounce even after the funds have been released. Some scammers try to rig the system to cause this to happen as a way to commit various types of check fraud.

Finally, and perhaps as the most relevant point to your question, Bank A has options other than literally just "Yes" or "No" when they clear the check. Effectively, there is a "yes, but..." option. In fact, Bank B has this option too, when they verify your deposit (whether it happens immediately, i.e. a teller in a branch, or slightly offline, i.e. processing a mobile deposit capture). Either bank can correct your transaction such that it matches what they interpret the actual check image to represent. That is an important point: from both bank's perspectives, they are legally obligated to respect what the check says. Banking regulation requires them to do so, since the check is a regulated financial instrument. Going into a bank and telling them, this check is for $1000 but I only want $800 would be equivalent to handing them a $20 bill but telling them to only deposit $14 into your account. They simply can't do that, they are obligated to respect the "face value" of the instrument and they have no way to destroy or correct for the difference.

So, to answer your question in that context, if you deposit a check that clearly says $1000 on it, but you write down $800 on the deposit slip (or in your mobile capture software), one of several things will happen:

  • Your bank will catch the "mistake" and correct it. You will see a deposit of $1000 even though you put $800 as the amount.
  • Your bank will catch the mistake and reject it. They will cancel the transaction and tell you why they cancelled it.
  • Your bank will miss the error (not likely!) and submit the $800 transaction to the other party's bank. That bank will correct the amount and tell your bank to give you $1000 instead of $800.
  • Same as #3, but the other bank will reject the check and tell your bank to give you no money.

Whether either bank rejects the difference or corrects it likely depends on their own processing rules and their interpretation of regulation, as well as details about the check (if it passed or failed fraud detection measures, a "fishy" check with a mismatched amount is more likely to just get rejected). Also, the difference in amount is important, some check cashing software will automatically fix transposed digits (you typed in $1000.13 even though the check says $1000.31).

How likely is it that either bank will miss your sneaky plan and give you the $800 instead of the check's $1000? Not likely at all. Modern banking software is very good at catching basic things like numbers not matching, and they use complicated scoring routines to determine if their decision is trustworthy or not - any image they can't reliably process is dumped to a queue for manual review. And both the manual reviews and the automated processing jobs are manually and independently audited within a given bank, so in the off chance that the image goes through incorrectly, it is often caught in an audit anyways. Not to mention that this entire error handling process effectively happens twice by two different institutions, so any systemic gap or problem in one institution's processing logic will likely be caught by the other party.

So - ultimately - your plan will not work unless you happen to get lucky and evade the processing functions designed to verify check deposits, which isn't likely.

I am editing to clarify: in your exact situation, you basically have the following options:

  • Reject the check - void it and give it back to the person who wrote it. Tell them you need a check for the smaller amount.
  • Reject the check, and tell them you want to be paid the same amount through a vehicle that actually allows refunds or adjustments to transactions (i.e. PayPal, after which you can do a partial refund) So, they PayPal you $1000 and you refund them $200.
  • Accept the check and cash it for the proper amount, then write your own check back to them for the amount you wish to reject. Or, get a cashier's check for that amount and give it to them, so there's a record with a third party (the bank you got the cashier's check from) of your attempt to refund the money.
  • Accept the check, cash it, and use another vehicle to refund the difference (again, i.e. - PayPal, if you know their email address and you know they are a PayPal user).

Of course, you've already stated that you basically don't want to do these options, and with any of them, there's a potential chance that the other person will reject your attempt to adjust the amount - I'm simply listing them here for the sake of completeness. Also, it's worth mentioning that depending on why you want to only accept a portion of the money, and who the other person is (and what their intentions are), these options may or may not be good ideas - for instance, if you are currently in the midst of falling for an overpayment scam, returning part of the money via a mechanism that's not reversible is a surefire way to cause yourself financial loss. Or, returning part of the money via a mechanism which isn't explicitly linked to the initial transaction may be a bad idea if this is part of some contract or payment dispute process. And so on - we really can't evaluate the legitimacy of these options based on what you've presented in your question, so proceed at your own risk.

But, to be clear, there is no way to do this just using the original check you already have.

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    The thing people sometimes miss is that mobile deposit doesn't inherently mean you bypass screening or validation processes because you're the one typing the numbers in - it just changes the mechanisms and timing involved. – dwizum Jan 22 at 16:11
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    Very good answer, except for this part which is incorrect: would be equivalent to handing them a $20 bill but telling them to only deposit $14 into your account. They simply can't do that. Banks can and will do that, they break the $20 into $14 + $6, deposit the $14 per your request and return the $6 to you. Source: have done this many times. – studog Jan 22 at 22:35
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    Thank you dwizum for the explanation. I know you all are afraid I'm falling into some scam or something because you don't know the details for what prompted me to want to do this. There's nothing I can do to prove to you that there's nothing nefarious going on, but allow me to assert that I'm well aware of all the details of this situation and there's no scamming here. I appreciate all the concerns about some imagined X/Y problem, but this targeted factual discussion of my question was really all I needed here. – Partial Fraction Jan 23 at 2:44
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    @PartialFraction, just to clarify, the point of StackExchange, aside from helping you, is to also preserve this knowledge to help anyone else with a similar question. So this discussion of overpayment scams feels almost a mandatory step in providing an answer, even if it isn't applicable just now. – Celos Jan 23 at 7:07
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    @studog: Banks can and will do that, they break the $20 into $14 + $6, deposit the $14 per your request and return the $6 to you. Source: have done this many times. the point is, if you tell them you only want $14, and you do not want to claim any ownership whatsoever over the other $6, they can't do that. You have to tell them what to do with it, they can't just make it go away as if the person who originally gave you $20 had only given you $14. – dwizum Jan 23 at 13:46
47

No this can't be done. You can either cash the cheque for the amount written or not cash it. Writing a different amount on your ATM deposit will be noticed and corrected, just like it would if you wrote too high an amount.

If you don't want the full amount then write a cheque for the difference and send it back. Or give it to a charity. If this isn't someone you trust completely wait a couple of months before sending anything back to ensure that the deposited cheque is genuine.

Frankly if it was me I would accept the free gift of the extra amount from someone who clearly wants to give it to me.

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    @PartialFraction several reasons. Accounting, the check's nominal value is one of its identifiers and withdrawing less than full amount could possibly double the entries required, fraud, one could claim that the payment was not made in full and sue, computing systems, it was not implemented to work that way, and that is just what I can think from the top of my mind. – Mindwin Jan 22 at 13:41
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    @PartialFraction This is a fairly reasonable answer. Go to a bank and ask if you can do this. If they tell you "yes", great, problem solved. If (and I suspect when) they tell you "no", repeat at another bank. How many banks are you willing to try before you stop caring about the distinction between "no, it's not possible" and "yes, it's possible, but no one can tell me where I can do it"? – chepner Jan 22 at 14:17
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    A check is, in some sense, a contract between two people. The bank's only role in cashing a check is to provide the money on behalf of the person that wrote the check. It's not their job to assist in a unilateral change to that contract. – chepner Jan 22 at 14:19
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    This is bad advice, following this as a general approach leaves you open to overpayment scams. – Taemyr Jan 22 at 14:51
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    If the sender isn't asking for money back this is very unlikely to be an overpayment scam. – DJClayworth Jan 22 at 15:50
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If you must, you have your counterparty's bank account number on the check. Go to a branch of the bank the check is drawn on, cash it, take the amount you want and deposit the remainder to that account.

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    @PartialFraction Yes, you can. – MonkeyZeus Jan 22 at 13:07
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    You can. I once rented out an appartment, and the tenant would just deposit his cash into my bank account at an ATM, without my presence. – Jonathan Jan 22 at 13:14
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    It'd likely that OP wants only a fraction of the money because of some legal action he's planning. However, the act of endorsing a check with your signature means that you're accepting the full amount of the check, and then only later putting money in the payor's account. – RonJohn Jan 22 at 15:02
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    I'd want a lawyer to confirm that. If someone owes me $2000 and they send me a cheque for $1000, my cashing that cheque doesn't imply I've accepted the $1000 in place of the $2000. It's a part payment. – DJClayworth Jan 22 at 15:54
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    @user662852 OP did write "For complicated reasons (we had some dispute about how much was owed for what)" at the top of the question, so that strongly implies some legal dispute (that OP is trying to settle in a completely amateurish manner). – RonJohn Jan 22 at 17:17
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No checks can't be cashed for lesser amount as there is no mechanism for Banks to communicate the same, i.e. how do they record that you asked for lesser amount and communicate back to check issuing bank without altering the check.

Recording for lesser amount may not go through and can create more issues.

Best is encash the check and send a refund check for the amount.

  • Hi Dheer. How do you know this? (As for how they would do it, probably with some sort of form. Pretty straightforward to imagine how it would work.) – Partial Fraction Jan 22 at 4:00
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    This is bad advice, because it leaves you open to overpayment scams. – Taemyr Jan 22 at 14:50
  • @PartialFraction Checks are negotiable instruments covered under UCC. There are specific as to what can and can't be done. These are contracts that can't be altered. – Dheer Jan 22 at 16:47
  • @Taemyr Agreed. This is only on trusted parties and not otherwise – Dheer Jan 22 at 16:48
  • +1 I was going to suggest sending a check back for the difference... (assuming you're sure that the check is good in the first place - if not, you have other problems) – sǝɯɐſ Jan 22 at 18:53
5

Scam alert

You haven't described the particulars, nor do you need to, but know this. The most common scam out there is to contrive a reason to send you too much money, and then get you to send some of the money back. The check is bogus. They abscond with your giveback money.

Note that the check will arrive in your bank account, and then "clear" - the bank will release the money. That is not real. The check's actual path through the banking system is designed to be convoluted, and take 10-15 days to bounce. However, the bank does not know that, and they place a "hold" on checks for 3-5 days as a matter of policy. The hold releases, you think "aha, the check has cleared!" And it hasn't.

Nope

Now, paper checks are a legacy system going back a couple hundred years. They are not digital transfers. The biggest thing they're concerned with is checks being altered. So they want to see checks cashed exactly as written.

Another factor is accounting. If a business does accounting, or even if a person pays attention... If you wrote a check for $3641.12 and later you get a debit for $3641.12, that is exactly what you expect it to be. Whereas, if you get a debit for $2480.74, even if it has a check number on it, you don't know what that is. You can't reconcile, you can't balance, and now you must investigate what happened. That is time consuming for everyone. You finally end up having to post an additional adjustment transaction, which then becomes an issue at audit. It becomes an accounting nightmare.

I get where you want to do a simple thing, but the whole system is built around not doing that.

You are better off taking the extra money anyway

If you have more money than you agreed, it is a simple matter for you to correct it. There is no rush; you can do it anytime. Beware of the aforementioned scam, and if there's the slightest doubt in the funds, wait as long as your banker tells you to in order to for it to clear. Let the other party squirm on the hot seat for a change.

  • If you're going to be wary of the scam, best not to deposit the check at all. Even after the cheque "clears" it's still possible that later it could be found to be fraudulent and the funds removed from your account. – cjs Jan 25 at 4:57
  • @CurtJ.Sampson good point, edited. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 25 at 13:26
3

Technically, what you would be doing would be wire fraud under US law. Back at my bank trainings (admittedly 25 years in the past), this was the kind of thing they would harp on. Regardless of the good will or lack thereof of your act, the numbers don't match and therefore it's fraud.

Leaving the (admittedly unlikely) jail time out of the mix, there is a strong likelihood that you'd suffer from accounts changing balances and freezing of funds as the involved parties arbitrated this out over a period of days/weeks.

Personally, I would find messing with the system in this fashion totally not worth it. I'd expect my bank where I deposited the check to flag my account for lots of extra scrutiny in the future after such a stunt.

Another risk is that you'd get caught in the web of money laundering legislation, where defining the concept of laundering is so difficult that the banks themselves aren't able to give a very concise definition. Imagine watching endless videos about money laundering and how you have to be on the lookout for it, but no one can tell you what it exactly is. The definition appears to be "transactions the government doesn't like".

By the time they got done putting you through the wringer with your finances, I presume you'd be shorn of any desire to find out more about this.

  • Can you cite any wire fraud law that doesn't have as an element an intent to defraud? Since you can't defraud anyone by reducing the amount of a check, how could that element possibly be satisfied? – David Schwartz Jan 23 at 13:07
  • @DavidSchwartz Marking a $20 bill to say $10 would definitely represent an intent to defraud. For checks... IDK, but wouldn't be surprised. – jpaugh Jan 23 at 16:49
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    @DavidSchwartz your assumption is incorrect. Imagine the logical flow here: First question, did you know the correct amount listed on the check? Yes. Second Question: did you misrepresent that number purposefully (for whatever reason)? Yes. That's fraud. – Kevin P Jan 23 at 17:28
  • The legal argument about whether this is actually fraud or not is totally pointless. Banks aren't in the business of enforcing law. That's what law enforcement does. Banks are in the business of protecting their best interests. They're allowed by regulation to reject anything that they think may potentially be fraud. They don't have any burden whatsoever to actually prove that something is fraud in order to reject it, they are basically allowed to say, "this makes us nervous, we don't want to be involved, we are not processing this transaction for you." – dwizum Jan 24 at 13:37
  • @KevinP No, it's not. The statutes require fraudulent intent which requires an intent to harm. For example, the Ninth circuit model jury instruction on fraudulent intent contains the phrase "requires an intent to harm the victims". (See McNally v. United States, for example, which held that there must be an intent to deprive someone of a tangible value to which they were entitled.) – David Schwartz Jan 24 at 18:57
2

I only want to accept $Y from this person for this service, where Y < X.

So, this is for some kind of work. An exchange for service. Was there a contract?

we had some dispute about how much was owed for what

Warning bells.

Cash the full check or send it back: that's it in relation to what they sent you

This is already covered from what the bank will or won't let you do and related mechanics in other answers, but the simple case is that you are not "taking money from someone's mattress" (an analogy you floated in a comment). You are giving the bank a signed certificate (financial instrument) to transfer funds, where it is drawn on someone else's account, who in turn is the signatory. They can modify their check (and even then it can turn into what the bank will or won't accept) but you legally cannot do that or in turn yourself modify what the banks are instructed to do via that check. You cannot. It is not your place to, legally or otherwise, because you are not the one "taking the money", even if you are the one handing over the check and saying where the money should go. The bank is the entity that actually "takes" the money, at the instruction of the person who signed the check against their account. They are then placing the money in your account. Other answers go into further related depth, but this seems like a crucial source of related misunderstanding.

This is why analogies are often not your friend for these types of discussions. Because the reality turns on how things actually work and what a given instrument actually is legally, not some loose poorly constructed analogy that fits your hand waivey mental model of simply "I'm getting their money".

Is there any solution besides having the other person send me a new check written for $Y? It feels like there should be.

You can send it back and request they send you the correct amount, or you can refund them the difference. Those are your only options within your requested parameters of not keeping it all. But how you refund it actually matters, if you choose that route.

I'm going to differ with some other answers: Do not deposit money back. Send your own check as a partial refund if you want, and do it right if you do.

It's nice that you want to refund part of the check, for your own personal ethical reasons.

If you do so, write up a proper refund slip, note what transaction it pertains to, note what check you are sending with it, make a copy of everything, and send the originals. Then it's on them to deposit it, shred it, or whatever else they want to do, but if things are already this problematic, you need to be smart enough about this to retain a paper trail that keeps things tied together.

NEVER simply deposit back money with no related paper trail as part of a business transaction (which is what this amounts to when you start including the words "service" and "owed", even if you see it differently). If the person who sent you the original check decided to cancel it or otherwise dispute it in a more straightforward fashion, you are placing yourself in a very disadvantaged position of having effectively no recourse for the money you simply deposited into their account, because there's no record that says it has any relationship to this original transaction.

There's a reason a number of financial scams begin with "let me send you a check for you to cash, and then you pay me [in some way that you won't be able to cancel/effectively dispute] out of some portion of it". Obviously your circumstances are different in terms of the related trust relationship, but the underlying potential problems with doing certain things aren't.

Since you've been cagey about whether this is something you consider to be a business transaction per se...

If this started as something friendly and not business related, hopefully this is a good lesson in treating anything like this in at the very least a business-like way: structuring financial transactions with friends solidly (and then making your own decisions about what to voluntarily let go of/excuse within that framework) is a good way to keep friends (or find out who wasn't worth having as a friend) while everyone involved stays reasonably protected (which you should want for yourself and your friends) and there's mutually understood clarity and precision of related communication (why court needless room for misunderstandings with friends, with money piled on top to weight them down even more?).

Loose financial transactions with friends, short of them being straight up gifts with truly no expectations in return (which can still turn dicey), is a good way to lose friends over arguing about money for all the wrong reasons, with no safety nets except even uglier forms of escalated arguing.

1

Similar to the answer by user662852,

  • I would suggest that the best answer is not to fight the check but correct the balance by returning money according to your understanding
  • and when you do that you can document why you are doing so, which may even better fit your needs.

That is, after cashing their check,
you could create a credit invoice that documents why you need to refuse part of the money
and send that with your check for the balance.

You can keep careful records of doing this for yourself, and possibly send the credit notice and check by a registered courier and keep evidence that it was received.

1

If I put it in an ATM and record the amount as $Y would anyone even notice?

Yes, they will definitely notice, for the same reason you can not type too large of an amount. Typing something that you know now to be true in mobile deposit is not a good idea, even if it is less.

I received a long awaited check today (USA) written for $X. For complicated reasons (we had some dispute about how much was owed for what),

In the USA, cashing the check strongly implies that you agree to the terms of whatever deal you had with the person. Depositing the check and sending back the balance is probably a bad idea.

In other words, I want less money than they are offering me. And I don't want to have to deal with getting another check from them;

With returned NSF checks you must get the check writer to issue a new check for the lower amount. Attempting to cash it again for a lower amount (that you think they may have) is not allowed.

Can I go to a bank and say please only take $Y from the other account with this check?

If you don't believe strangers on the internet, this is a perfectly reasonable strategy. Asking for permission here is much safer than forgiveness. Call first if the bank is inconvenient to visit.

0

Let's leave scams aside for now. You aren't clear on the issue that is causing the dispute. There are circumstances when it might be a bad idea to accept the money because accepting the payment could be construed as agreeing to a contract.

Lets say for example, we are talking rent for a property and you agreed $800 for a 1 month tennancy, the counterparty said he wanted to pay $1000 for two months etc. Or lets say there are two sepearete obligations, one of which is in dispute. You want to settle transaction 1 for the agreed $800 but not the second one where you want $400 and they counterparty is offering $200.

But in all these cases what matters really is the contractual paper and communications. If you write clearly (And keep evidence/copies) that you are accepting $800 to close issue 1 and are not accepting $200 to close issue 2 (and either state you are keeping $200 as part payment or that you will return the $200 in due course) then the actual cash transfers matter less as you contractual intent is clear.

It happens all the time and companies spend lots of accountant time sorting out all this kind of stuff.

(In terms of actually getting paid, you obviously need to consider counterparty risk - of which scams are the most extreme example but simple liquidity is another - and cash in your bank account puts you in a better position that cash in theirs.)

-4

Let me start by addressing some of the other answers:

  1. The claim that this is fraud. No, it isn't. Every fraud statute requires that you have the intent to defraud someone. You can't defraud anyone by lowering the value of the check. So it's not fraud.

  2. The claim that banks have no way to communicate this change. That's clearly not true. I can give you a check and you can deposit it without any communication from me (the only one who knows the value other than what's written on the check) to any bank. So if you modify the amount on the check, the check itself will communicate that modified amount just as it communicates the amount if it's not modified.

  3. It's illegal to alter a check. That is not true. It is perfectly legal to alter a check in the common sense meaning of the term "alter". Where laws refer to "altering" a check, "alter" is a term of art that means modifying the check to reflect an obligation that issuer of the check didn't intend the check to reflect. Someone who creates an obligation to pay a larger amount intends to create an obligation for a smaller amount as well. If I intent to have to pay you $10, I also intend to have to pay you $5. See this article for the definition of an "altered check". The OP states the check pays for two things, so the issuer of the check intended to pay for each of those things.

FRAUD WARNING: Checks made for more than the amount owed are a common part of many fraudulent schemes. In most of these schemes, the check is either a bad check or drawn without the authorization of the account holder. If there is any chance that check is part of a scheme like this, it is extremely important that you do not cash or deposit it.

In any event, I wouldn't do this no matter what. If you're not entitled to the money, you are obligated to return it promptly. But if anything goes wrong with the original check, your return of funds you wind up not actually receiving will still stand. In addition, you've indicated that there isn't an agreement between the two of you about who owes what to whom, so you can't really modify the check to reflect the agreement, you can only modify it to reflect what you think the agreement should be.

If you have a relationship with the party that wrote the check and have previously accepted checks drawn on the same account, you can deposit it and send them a letter indicating that they overpaid you and that they have a credit.

If not, return the check. Every other possible avenue just has too much risk associated with it. If the check is fraudulent, unauthorized, or counterfeit, you don't want to have modified it in any way. If there is fraudulent intent on the part of the other party, you don't want to be in a position where you have to argue that none of that intent was yours when there will be evidence you knew there wasn't agreement between the parties.

  • To be clear: Are you trying to claim that it's OK to modify the amount written on a check? Regardless of the question of whether it's strictly "legal" or not, I think there's a more important question of whether it will actually work. You'd need the cooperation of all parties involved (both banks and the maker). If any of those parties disputes, your gig is up. Banks are allowed to reject anything they think is potentially fraud, even if that specific thing isn't explicitly illegal. – dwizum Jan 23 at 14:12
  • Modification (especially to the legal line) is a common enough reason for rejection that rules to detect modification are baked into most check processing software packages used by banks. – dwizum Jan 23 at 14:13
  • That's clearly not true. I can give you a check and you can deposit it without any communication from me - That seems like an odd way to avoid something obvious: The check itself is the communication from me. If you modify it after I give it to you, you are literally changing the transaction without my consent, and I would have every right to reject that change once the check shows up in my transaction history. And the bank(s) involved would instantly side with me once they saw the modified check image. Game over. – dwizum Jan 23 at 14:17
  • @dwizum See my explanation under point 3 above. The change does not require consent because the check still satisfies an obligation the writer of the check intended to satisfy and it is not a raised check because the amount hasn't been raised. – David Schwartz Jan 23 at 15:00
  • @dwizum Someone can always decide to dispute a check after it's deposited if they want and a bank might side with either party. However, if that happened, he would have evidence that the writer of the check reneged on his promise to satisfy the obligation that the partial payment would have satisfied. Sure, if the writer of a check isn't happy, they can always dispute and they might win. That does NOT mean that you did anything wrong or illegal, simply that the bank decided not to process the payment. That can happen even if he doesn't alter the check. Banks have whatever rules they have. – David Schwartz Jan 23 at 15:02

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