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Feature Articles: Miscellaneous


Check 21

Suzi McGarvey, Extension Associate, Consumer and Family Economics, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri Extension

The Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act, also known simply as Check 21, became a law in October 2003. The aim of the law was to increase the “efficiency of the nation’s payments system.”

In the past, most checks had to be physically delivered to a bank before they could be cleared. Because some checks had to be routed to various places across the country, this process was expensive and time consuming. Using a digital image of the original, banks now can reproduce your check. The reproduction is called a “substitute check.”

If you normally get your canceled checks (or electronic copies) from your bank, you may have already received substitute checks instead of your original check. You can use this substitute in the same way you would a canceled check, such as for proof of a purchase.


These substitute checks have allowed for faster check clearing, which in turn can decrease fraud. They have also allowed banks to decrease the amount of paper they use and have increased security.

For consumers, the period of "float" (the time before your check amount is subtracted from your bank balance) has been shortened, so it takes greater care to avoid bounced checks. Float may not get you through if you are used to writing checks on an empty account a couple of days before payday—the checks may bounce and result in added fees.

Banks are required by law to accurately copy your check. If they make an error, banks must refund your account in the amount of their mistake along with any fees (such as bounced check fees). If your account bears interest, you may also recover any lost interest.

If you feel your bank made an error, contact them as soon as possible. You often must report mistakes within 40 calendar days from when the substitute check was mailed to you to be guaranteed an adjustment.

American Bankers Association, Checks Are Changing, Financial Education Corporation, 2004.

American Bankers Association, Substitute Checks and Your Rights, Financial Education Corporation, 2004

Federal Trade Commission, Check 21: Substitute Checks, Electronic Processing and What it Means to You, June 2005,




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