Understanding ACH Returns: What They Are & How to Return an ACH Payment

By Jacqueline DeMarco · June 18, 2022 · 8 minute read

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Understanding ACH Returns: What They Are & How to Return an ACH Payment

Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan, and those quick, convenient ACH payments wind up getting returned or needing to be reversed. Usually, these electronic transactions run smoothly, but at times, the funds don’t or can’t get from point A to point B.

Here, we’ll take a look at why ACH payments are sometimes returned. We’ll cover:

•   What ACH turns are

•   Terms to know about ACH returns

•   What the difference is between an ACH return and a Notice of Change

•   How to return an ACH payment

What Are ACH Returns?

Are you wondering, “Can ACH payments be returned?” The answer is, “Most definitely!” These electronic transfers of funds are not necessarily a one-way street.

While most payments are likely to go through, ACH returns occur when an ACH payment (aka an online payment transaction) fails to be completed. This can happen for a few reasons, such as:

•   The originator providing inaccurate payment information or data

•   The originator providing non-existent or inadequate authorization

•   The originator isn’t authorized to debit the client’s account with an ACH payment

•   Insufficient funds to cover the transaction (which can happen, especially if the person paying doesn’t balance a bank account regularly)

Next, let’s look at how an ACH return transpires. If a merchant wants to debit their client’s account, the merchant’s bank (at the merchant’s request) will send a request for an ACH debit from the client’s account. The client’s relevant ACH network will then receive an ACH payment request. Then the merchant’s bank will debit the client’s account and the merchant’s account will be credited with the amount of money indicated in the ACH payment request.

At this point, the ACH network should send the ACH transaction to the client’s bank. After receiving the ACH form, if all required conditions are met, they will then debit their client’s account for the amount they owe the merchant.

If for some reason the client’s bank account alerts the ACH network that they are not able to complete the transaction, the money will remain in the client’s account. That’s an ACH return.

It costs money to process an ACH return, and that cost falls on the consumer. Similar to how consumers get charged a fee when they bounce a check, the consumer will need to pay a fee if an ACH return occurs. This banking fee is fairly small and typically only costs $2 to $5 per return.

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Important Terms to Know About ACH Returns

To better understand how ACH returns work, it’s helpful to know a bit of the industry’s vocabulary — particularly ODFI and RDFI (which are the two parties involved in every ACH return). Here’s what these acronyms mean:

•   ODFI (Originating Depository Financial Institution): The originator of the transaction who’ll send funds

•   RDFI (Receiving Depository Financial Institution): The receiver of the funds

Another facet of ACH lingo that’s helpful to know are ACH return codes. Any ACH return that occurs will generate an ACH return code. These ACH return codes are made up of the letter R followed by some numerals. Each code represents a different reason for a return. These codes can be helpful because they inform the originator of why the ACH return happened.

The following ACH return codes are fairly common:

•   R01 – Insufficient funds. This code means that the available assets can’t cover the debit entry (like when an account is overdrawn).

•   R02 – Account closed. In other words, the client or the RDFI closed the account that should be debited or credited through an ACH payment.

•   R03 – No account/unable to locate account. In this case, the return occurred because the account intended for ACH payment doesn’t exist or the account’s owner is not the one noted by the debit entry.

•   R04 – Invalid account number structure. If something is wrong with the client’s bank account number or the number doesn’t pass validation, a R04 return code results.

•   R05 – Unauthorized debit to a consumer account. If the receiver hasn’t authorized the originator to request an ACH transfer from their bank account, the transfer can be blocked. This ACH code will occur.

It’s worth noting that R05 return codes work a bit differently. Unlike the other ACH return codes listed, the return time frame for R05 is 60 banking days instead of two. This longer time frame gives the originator a chance to ask the receiver to allow the ACH transfer to occur or to provide them with a new bank account number to complete the transaction.

What Is the Difference Between a Notice of Change (NOC) And ACH Return?

It’s easy to confuse a Notice of Change (NOC) and an ACH return, but these are two different things. Let’s clarify the difference in these banking terms and processes. A Notice of Change, or NOC, is a method used by financial institutions to notify a federal agency to correct or change account information. It applies to an entry processed by the federal agency through the ACH. A NOC is not a form of payment in and of itself. Nor does it represent a failure to complete an ACH payment transaction. It’s a request for an edit, basically, while an ACH return actually stops a transaction.

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When Can You Request a Reversal of an ACH Payment?

For a reversal to occur on an ACH payment, certain requirements have to be met. Here are the guidelines for successfully putting the brakes on a transaction:

•   The reversal entry has to be transmitted to the bank within five banking days after the settlement date of the erroneous file.

•   Transmitting the reversing file has to occur within 24 hours of discovering the error.

If these criteria are met, the reversal of an ACH payment can proceed.

Why You Might Be Receiving an ACH Return

As you monitor your bank account, you may see that an ACH transaction, which usually happens so smoothly, is being returned. This can occur for a variety of reasons. For instance, the originator may have provided inaccurate payment information or may not have been authorized to debit the client’s account with an ACH payment. The codes reviewed above can also shed light on why the transfer of funds was stopped. By the way, both returned mobile ACH payments and returned ACH card payments can occur.

How to Return an ACH Payment

Returning an ACH payment involves simply stopping the payment from going through. This can happen in a couple of ways. Let’s say a bank can’t complete the transaction due to an error in the account number or the fact that the account was closed. Here’s what would likely happen:

1.    The client’s bank notifies the ACH network that they can’t complete the transaction.

2.    The money remains in the client’s account, and the originator will receive an ACH return code.

3.    The return gets processed, usually taking two bankings days.

Another way a return could happen is a customer could, say, decide to cancel an automatic bill payment. In this case, here’s how things would probably unfold:

1.    The customer would contact the business expecting payment and let them know they are ending the agreement and the company will no longer be able to access their account.

2.    The customer lets the bank know they are ending the autopay. How exactly this will be completed depends on the bank. It may need to be in writing.

3.    The request to end the autopay must be made at least three business days before a payment is due, to allow time for processing.

The Takeaway

While ACH payments are a super convenient payment method, sometimes a funds transfer fails to go through. In this situation, a returned ACH payment occurs. ACH returns can happen for a few reasons (such as the client’s bank account contains insufficient funds to complete the transfer). The entire process is fairly quick and is usually completed within two banking days. As more and more electronic transfers happen, it’s wise to be aware of this system that can step in if details are incorrect or one party can’t or won’t hold up their end of the arrangement.

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What’s the time frame for an ACH debit return?

It usually takes two banking days for an ACH return to complete. However, there are select ACH return codes that result in a 60 banking-day return period.

How much are ACH return fees?

Fees vary, but they usually cost about $2 to $5 per return. The consumer pays this charge. It’s similar to paying a fee for a bounced check.

What are ACH return codes?

Every time an ACH return happens, the originator will be sent an ACH return code. This code is represented by the letter R and a two-figure number and explains why the return happened. For example, a R01 return code indicates that the client’s bank account contains insufficient funds to complete the transfer.

Can returned ACH payments be disputed?

Yes, ACH returns can be disputed. What that process looks like varies with the reason why the ACH return occurred. Every ACH return code has a specific return time frame associated with it. Only during that time frame can the client dispute the ACH return.

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