What Is a Stop Payment and How Does It Work?

Quick Answer

A stop payment order typically allows you to cancel a check or automatic online payment before it’s processed. This can help you get your money back in some situations like theft, fraud, a dispute or an error.

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It's a horrible feeling to see charges in your checking account for something you canceled, or to realize you've sent a check to the wrong place. There may not always be recourse when money is lost, but sometimes there can be with stop payment orders.

A stop payment is when you cancel a payment you've made by check before it clears, or when you want to fully cancel a recurring payment. While it's not meant to be used often, it can save the day (and your money) in certain situations.

What Is a Stop Payment?

A stop payment is an order you can request from your bank or credit union that cancels a check or recurring debit transaction before it processes.

This could mean stopping a written check from being cashed, stopping a series of checks that have been stolen or stopping a company from charging automatic electronic payments after you've canceled a subscription. Payments can't be stopped once they're processing or once a check is cleared. Stop payment orders also can't be used for money orders or cashier's checks, and there's a different process for canceling pending credit card charges.

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What Are the Reasons for a Stop Payment?

There are myriad reasons why you might want to request a stop payment order, such as when:

  • Your checkbook is stolen and you don't want unauthorized checks written
  • You're getting charged automatic payments for something you canceled
  • You're having a dispute with a person or merchant
  • You've changed your mind
  • You wrote a check for the wrong amount or payee
  • You mailed a check to the wrong place
  • You realize your account has insufficient funds
  • Someone lost the check you wrote them
  • You wrote a check but realized it was a scam

How Does a Stop Payment Work?

Stopping a payment is only possible if the check or electronic payment hasn't cleared. Before proceeding, review your account to ensure the transaction hasn't processed.

If you want to cancel something with automatic recurring fees like monthly subscriptions, before going to your bank, attempt to cancel and resolve it with that company directly. If you've done so and they keep billing you, contact your bank immediately to stop payment. You usually need to make the request at least three days before the next automatic payment will process.

When you're ready to request a stop payment, find out how your financial institution handles them, since some may require a verbal or written request. Some banks let you request it online or in their app, while others permit requests by calling customer service or visiting a branch. Regardless of the method, you must be the account holder in order to stop a payment.

  • For stopping checks, you'll need to provide details such as the check number(s) and payee details. For recurring payments, you'll need information like the recipient's account information. If you successfully stop payment on a check, you won't be liable should someone cash it, reducing your chances of losing money to check fraud.
  • If you stop payment on an automatic recurring charge, any future charges are considered erroneous and you'll likely be able to get refunded. However, if you do actually owe those bills, you must find another way to pay since a stop payment doesn't get you out of a service contract or paying loan balances. It can be considered fraud to use stop payment to get out of paying for something you bought or owe.

Stop payment orders expire after 14 days if requested verbally (on the phone) but after six months if requested in writing. If you initiate by phone, follow up with a written request before 14 days pass to get protection for six months. You may be able to renew it later. Either way, after making your request, continue monitoring your checking account so you can dispute any erroneous charges.

How Much Are Stop Payment Fees?

Most financial institutions charge a fee for stop payment orders. Typically, fees range $20 to $30 each time, but they may be higher or lower depending on your bank or credit union.

Aim to Avoid Stop Payments

Stop payments are a useful tool, but their fees (and headache) should keep them reserved for emergencies. While not always avoidable, it helps to take proactive measures to avoid fraud and scams, keep a current budget and stay on top of subscriptions. If you need extra help, some Experian memberships come with tools that can cancel memberships and lower bills for you.