New Year’s Typo: Stop Writing 2012 on Your 2013 Checks

Illustration by 731

So you foggily wrote last year’s date on a check, your memory or fine motor skills lagging behind the calendar. Will that come back to bite you? It depends.

There are two links in the forgiveness chain. The first is the party that you’re trying to pay with the misdated check, such as a utility company or cable provider. The second is the bank that has to pony up your money. You can count on more forbearance from the former than the latter.

For their part, the businesses you’re trying to pay are just happy to get paid. They leave the fine distinctions of what year it is to the banks moving the moolah. A utility payment that still sports a “12” won’t faze Con Edison, says spokesman Bob McGee. “We’re always pleased to get a check,” he says. “We don’t discriminate by the date written on it.” Alex Dudley at Time Warner Cable says, “We just cash ’em.”

That’s all well and good for the huggy friendship types at utilities and giant telecoms, but what about the sternest of the stern—the parking-fee collectors for New York City? Owen Stone, press officer at the city’s finance department, is in line with the businesses: “We just take money,” he says. “It’s up to the bank whether to cash it or not.”

Your imperfect check may have a tougher time during that phase of its journey. Banks say check fraud cost them just under $900 million in 2010, so they’re cagey about assuming negligence or letting misdates slide. There are no penalties, though, beyond a delay in payment. Representatives at several banks say misdating is a common issue, and responses include contacting the customer to write a new check and internally reviewing and approving the check based on pattern recognition. For example, if you pay your phone bill with a check each month and happen to misdate a check in January, your bank will likely process the payment.

Yet under the Uniform Commercial Code, a standard set of interstate regulations to which banks generally adhere, they’re not obliged to pay checks dated more than six months ago. A Wells Fargo branch manager who requested anonymity because bank policy forbids speaking to reporters says a misdate will cause a problem at his branch: “If a check is dated older than 180 days, we generally won’t accept it. The check is the negotiable instrument, and we have to go by what it says.” Your mileage may vary: A Chase bank manager in New York’s Queens borough who refused to give his name says of misdated checks, “No problem. We’ll accept it.”

Even if the bank rejects the misdated check, there’s no further penalty beyond time and the cost of a second one. Still, that’s no reason for date negligence. Pacific Gas & Electric spokesman Jonathan Marshall says PG&E will take your marred check but politely requests that you “please make sure to put the right date. It will save everyone a lot of trouble.” Wise words: Don’t write checks the past can’t cash.