U.S. Banking Dopers: What are the elements of a check?

My economy teacher wants to know what exactly is required in order for a check to be valid. We looked online, but it seems that each website has a different opinion. He wrote a check out on a paper bag, using what was listed on wikipedia, but when I took it to the bank, they said that it had to be issued by his bank. When I told him that, he said that you could buy checks online from 3rd parties and use those.

What must be on a piece of paper to be accepted as a check? Under what circumstances would you accept a paper bag as a check?


At the absurdly bare minimum, it’s giving instructions to pay someone an amount of money.

It would need the maker’s identification, the amount, the person that’s to receive the money, and since it’s a form of contract, a signature and date.

So yes, you could take a scrap of paper and write

Pay $xx.xx to Cecil Adams
<signed> Ed Zotti
November 27, 2005

Cecil and Ed better have exceptional relations with their respective banks for this to work, though. Most importantly, on Ed’s side, so his bank will pay the check that he wrote on a White Castle wrapper.

In practice, naturally, the check-writer’s bank account information is needed. As a one-off stunt, you might be able to write your account number and the rest of the info on the side of a cow and walk it into the bank. The trick is getting the cow into the check scanning machinery. To this end, your bank does have the right to hold you to certain technical guidelines on the physical aspects of a check. - paper in a certain range of sizes, account info in magnetic ink and everything else you’ve come to expect.

From the Uniform Commercial Code (Start with 3-104(f) and work back - I’ve bolded especially relevant parts):

Sec. 3‑104. Negotiable instrument.

(a) Except as provided in subsections (c) and (d), **"negotiable instrument" means an unconditional **promise or **order to pay a fixed amount of money**, with or without interest or other charges described in the promise or order, **if it: **

    (1) is payable to bearer or to order at the time it is issued or first comes into possession of a holder; 

    (2) **is payable on demand or at a definite time; and 

    (3) does not state any other undertaking or instruction by the person promising or ordering payment to do any act in addition to the payment of money,** but the promise or order may contain (i) an undertaking or power to give, maintain, or protect collateral to secure payment, (ii) an authorization or power to the holder to confess judgment or realize on or dispose of collateral, or (iii) a waiver of the benefit of any law intended for the advantage or protection of any obligor. 

(b) "Instrument" means a negotiable instrument. 

(c) An order that meets all of the requirements of subsection (a), except paragraph (1), and otherwise falls within the definition of "check" in subsection (f) is a negotiable instrument and a check. 

(d) A promise or order other than a check is not an instrument if, at the time it is issued or first comes into possession of a holder, it contains a conspicuous statement, however expressed, to the effect that the promise or order is not negotiable or is not an instrument governed by this Article. 

(e) **An instrument is a "note" if it is a promise and is a "draft" if it is an order. **If an instrument falls within the definition of both "note" and "draft", a person entitled to enforce the instrument may treat it as either. 

**(f) "Check" means (i) a draft, other than a documentary draft, payable on demand and drawn on a bank or (ii) a cashier's check or teller's check. **An instrument may be a check even though it is described on its face by another term, such as "money order". 

(g) "Cashier's check" means a draft with respect to which the drawer and drawee are the same bank or branches of the same bank. 

(h) "Teller's check" means a draft drawn by a bank (i) on another bank, or (ii) payable at or through a bank.

We’ll work on holder in due course next week.

Check out the story of Patrick Combs, the guy who deposited a junk mail check for $95,000 on a lark, but then, after his account was credited with the money, realized the company had accidentally designed a negotiable instrument (hint: non-negotiable doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t)

When you have a few minutes, read this. It’s long, but an entertaining story of a guy who deposited a $95,000 junk mail check clearly marked “Non-Negotiable” into his account - and it was cashed!

It has quite a few interesting points about banking law as it applies to checks, as well.

Sorry, Garfield. Teach me to preview, you’d think I’d know better. kimera, our two stories are exactly the same.

I thought we’d done this before:


** Elements of a Check ** In pdf format.

I would expect that the bank asked to cash the check will require it to conform to their standards.

Barring an emergency I can not think of any valid reason why anyone would want to present an ersatz check for payment.

IIRC from my bank teller days, the bare minimum elements are:

  1. Payee
  2. Payor
  3. Drawee Bank Account
  4. Date
  5. Amount

I wouldn’t. The bank would refuse it because they can’t process it. Although it is legally valid, the bank need not accept it.