Writing a check to pay for a product or service isn't as common in today's world as it has been in the past thanks to the ability to pay for most things online. I don't think we have a monthly bill at my house that we actually write a physical check for and mail off. Even buying something from an individual or paying them back the money they loaned you for one reason or another has gone digital with apps like Venmo. With that said, every once in a blue moon there comes a moment when writing a check is needed, but if that check is for less than $1, are the cops going to come bust down your front door and take you to prison?

U.S. Code Title 18 Section 336 - Issuance of circulating obligations of less than $1

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According to the United States Senate website, the U.S. Code is described as "a compilation of most public laws currently in force, organized by subject matter." The code is organized into 54 different titles covering everything from how the highest levels of government operate, including the length of one term for the President and members of both houses of Congress, to food inspection and criminal procedure. The latter of which brings us to U.S. Code Title 18 Section 336.

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I recently stumbled upon an old post on Reddit in the "Today I Learned" sub-Reddit (where users share links to information they find surprising or odd) that claimed it was illegal to write a check for less than $1 in the United States and provided a link to the Cornell Law School that provided the code verbatim. It reads:

Whoever makes, issues, circulates, or pays out any note, check, memorandum, token, or other obligation for a less sum than $1, intended to circulate as money or to be received or used in lieu of lawful money of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

Just to be sure that was correct, I also looked up the code on the official government website where all the codes can be viewed by the public, and it read the exact same way.

What U.S. Code Title 18 Section 336 Says vs. How It's Interpreted

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While on the surface, it certainly does seem to read as if writing a check for less than one dollar is a federal crime, that's the meaning I took away from it, after digging a little deeper, that's not exactly the case.

Out of curiosity, I Googled to see if anyone has ever been arrested for writing a check for less than a dollar. One of the top results was an August 2021 post on Quora, a popular Q-n-A website, where a user asked why it was illegal after they saw it as a clue on an episode of Jeopardy. They were answered by a gentleman named Todd Allen who broke it down in easier-to-understand terms. Mr. Allen noted the line that reads, "intended to circulate as money or to be received or used in lieu of lawful money of the United States," and explained that when you write a check to another individual or a business, the intention is that check will be deposited or cashed for actual, "lawful money of the United States" (a.k.a. bills and coins), you are not writing it with the intention of it replacing those things, or circulating it as money as written in the code.

To put it a different way, if you wrote a check for 89 cents to pay for something, the person you gave it to can't turn around and use it to pay for something they want to buy that costs 89 cents, and the person they gave it to can't, and so on. The intention of the code, the way I understand it, is to prevent citizens from creating any denomination of money they need.

Think about it, if the code was enforced in the way people are interpreting it, banks, businesses, and even the government itself would be in violation of it any time they issue a dividend or refund check for less than $1.

So, by all means, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you're short on cash, can't use Venmo, and need to write a check for less than $1, go right ahead. Federal agents aren't going to break down your door and haul you off to prison.

[Sources: Office of the Law Revision Counsel / Quora]

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