A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Can you write a check on any old piece of paper?

December 5, 1986

Dear Cecil:

Today, again, I found myself out shopping without my checkbook. Only this time, I vaguely recalled once hearing that a person can write a check on any old piece of paper. Is or was this true, or is my memory failing? If true, what are the requirements as to what must be written, besides the amount and your signature — account number? Bank? Am I paying for blank checks I don't really need?

Cecil replies:

Don't throw out those puppies yet, Jack. It's true you can write a "negotiable instrument," bank talk for a valid check, on just about anything. According to the Uniform Commercial Code, the body of law that governs these things, all you have to include are the name of the payee, the dollar amount, the name of your bank, your signature, the date, and some suitable words of conveyance, such as "pay to the order of." You don't need the account number or the bank ID number you find on preprinted checks.

The trick is that you have to find somebody willing to accept such a check. Merchants and the like are free to reject any sort of payment they don't cotton to, checks included. Needless to say, if you try to write a check on the back of an old grocery list, the average checkout clerk is going to tell you to take a hike. However, if the clerk does accept it, the bank will honor it.

Charlie Rice, a columnist for the old This Week Sunday newspaper supplement, once wrote about various goofy checks that he claimed had been successfully cashed over the years:

Eben Grumpy of Iowa was a little slow in paying John Sputter $30 he owed him. Sputter threatened to sue, so Grumpy painted a check on a door and dropped it on him from a third-story window next time he came over. A court ruled the door was legal payment.

Albert Haddock of England paid his taxes by whitewashing a check for 26 pounds, 10 shillings on the side of a cow. The check was ruled legal.

A participant in an arc-welding contest in Cleveland won first prize for a steel check that he hand-lettered. The check was cashed by officials at a cooperative bank. "The canceling holes," Charlie says, "were applied by a bank guard with a submachine gun." Right.

Many nonstandard checks are publicity stunts, such as the 21-by-7-foot check cashed for a charity drive in Fort Worth. Most others are intended as nuisances. As a rule, I would venture to say, they get sent through the mail, for the obvious reason that they're a lot harder for the payee to reject. Just about any large company can tell you stories about comedians who send in checks written on underwear, bricks, and other inconvenient media. One common stunt is to write your annual tax check to the IRS on a shirt (the shirt off your back, get it?). Swiftian satire it ain't, but some find it amusing.

Whoops

Dear Cecil:

This is 12 years too late, but better late than never.  In your column on checks you describe a non-standard check whitewashed on the side of a cow by one Albert Haddock.  I regret to inform you that someone has been funning you.  It is contained in a book of legal spoofs entitled Uncommon Law by A.P. Herbert and is, of course, phony.

Dear Cecil replies:

Cecil knows this — knows it now, anyway —but may as well give credit where it's due.   A.P. Herbert's spoofs, many of which originally appeared in the British humor magazine Punch, were written in such a dead-on parody of legal style that they were often taken as fact by unwary journalists.  In the introduction to his book Herbert cites a case he'd written in which perennial defendant Haddock jumped into the Thames and was charged with an assortment of crimes by the police, who were certain he'd done something wrong but uncertain what it was. The judge in the case was made to say:

It is a principle of English law that a person who appears in court has done something undesirable, and citizens who take it upon themselves to do unusual actions which attract the attention of the police should be careful to bring those actions into one of the recognizable categories of crimes and offences, for it is intolerable that the police should be put to the pains of inventing reasons for finding them undesirable.

Herbert notes (with a certain pride, one feels) that this quote found its way into a solemn American legal tome, where it was cited as an example of the regrettable degree of latitude granted to British judges. So OK, I fell into the same hole as a bunch of other chumps. But you'll forgive me if I grin.

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