Social Security Benefit Garnishment Rules

  • Judgment-creditors may not garnish Social Security benefits.
  • Federal agencies can "off-set" Social Security benefits.
  • Social Security funds in an account with no others may not be levied.

When Creditors Are Allowed To Garnish Social Security Benefits

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It is against the law for a judgment-creditor to garnish your Social Security benefits. However, if you leave too much in the bank or credit union account where the Social Security Administration direct-deposits your benefit, the "excess amount" is vulnerable to what lawyers call a levy or account garnishment.

The federal government can take a piece out of your Social Security benefit, but a private judgment-creditor may not. According to the Social Security Administration Web page Garnishing Social Security benefits due to a debt:

“If a creditor other than the federal government tries to garnish your Social Security benefits, inform them that such an action violates Section 207 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 407). Section 207 bars garnishment of your benefits. It can also be used as a defense if your benefits are incorrectly garnished. Our responsibility for protecting benefits against garnishment, assignments and other legal processes usually ends when the beneficiary is paid. However, once paid, benefits continue to be protected under section 207 of Act as long as they are identifiable as Social Security benefits.”

Therefore, a creditor with a credit card, mortgage, private student loan, or auto loan debt may not garnish your wages. The Dept. of Education and other federal agencies may garnish (called “off-set” by the government) Social Security benefits for delinquent federal loans. There are six instances where the federal government may garnish Social Security benefits, including:

  • Garnish benefits to enforce child support or alimony obligations — Section 459 of the Act;
  • The Internal Revenue Service can levy against benefits to collect unpaid Federal taxes — Section 6334(c) of the Internal Revenue Code;
  • The Internal Revenue Service can collect taxes due by levying up to 15% of a monthly benefit until the debt is paid;
  • The Internal Revenue Service allows beneficiaries to have a portion of their check withheld to satisfy a current year Federal income tax liability — Section 3402 (P) of the Internal Revenue Code; and
  • Other Federal agencies can collect money from benefits to pay a non-tax debt owed to that Agency — Debt Collection Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-134 (PDF)).
  • Under the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act, certain civil penalties provide the right to garnish benefits under 18 USC 3613.

The Social Security Administration Web page Garnishing Social Security benefits contains the exceptions I just mentioned.

How Much May the Government Off-Set From Your Social Security?

The government may off-set Social Security retirement benefits and Social Security disability benefits, but not Supplemental Security Income as reimbursement for student loans. The government may not off-set an amount leaving you with benefits less than $9,000 per year or $750 per month. It may not off-set more than 15% of your total benefit.

Quick Tip: Dealing with debt? A debt resolution partner might be able to help.

Levy / Account Garnishment of Your Social Security Direct Deposits

Your Social Security income is protected from a private creditor’s garnishment. It is smart to open a separate, dedicated account or sub-account for the Social Security Administration’s direct deposits. Ask your bank or credit union to add a note to this account indicating it contains Social Security benefits, only. Do not deposit funds from other sources into this special account. Commingling exempt funds with non-exempt funds may lead to all of the funds becoming non-exempt.

Judgment creditors may not remove money deposit by the Social Security Administration from your bank or credit union account. Some states call this action account levy and others call it account garnishment. However, there is a limit to how much is exempt from levy. When your banks or credit unions receives a levy order, it must look back at your last two months of deposits and exempt two months-worth of money. Also, your bank must give you a notice of its actions, and if your state law requires it, time to dispute any funds removed from your account (CFR §212).

TipYour state may exempt even more than two months of Social Security benefits from an account levy. Maryland, for example, allows its residents to exempt $6,000 in their bank or credit union accounts. See the resource Collection Laws & Exemptions to learn some of the exemptions for each state.

Garnishment of Other Federal Benefits

Many other federal benefits are exempt from garnishment, including:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Benefits
  • Veterans’ Benefits
  • Civil Service and Federal Retirement and Disability Benefits
  • Service Members’ Pay
  • Military Annuities and Survivors’ Benefits
  • Student Assistance
  • Railroad Retirement Benefits
  • Merchant Seamen Wages
  • Longshoremen’s and Harbor Workers’ Death and Disability Benefits
  • Foreign Service Retirement and Disability Benefits
  • Compensation for Injury, Death, or Detention of Employees of U.S. Contractors Outside the U.S.
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency Federal Disaster Assistance

For more information about the various options available to consumers who are struggling with debts, visit the Debt Help section at See the article Wage Garnishment if you do not receive Social Security benefits.

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A judgment-creditor may not garnish your Social Security benefits, and two months-worth of benefits are exempt from account levy. Consult with an lawyer licensed in your state to learn more about your vulnerability to creditor execution in case of any judgment entered against you. An lawyer will explain the risks of having outstanding debts, and help you formulate an asset protection plan suited to your individual circumstances.

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Comments (14)

Paige B.
Covington, PA  |  December 10, 2013
i am in default on my student loan and the dept of education already has a lien on any tax returns i get or any other federal payments. my question is, i found out i have inherited a portion of an annuity my father had. since my father has passed away, my siblings and i are to be sent a lump sum payment. can the department of education seize it?
December 12, 2013
An inheritance is not the type of income a judgment-creditor or a government agency such as the Dept. of Education or IRS can intercept. It is my non-legal opinion the DoE has no legal mechanism to get its hands on your lump-sum inheritance.
Mary M.
Okemos, MI  |  November 19, 2013
Do the same statutes apply to disability? Can disability benefits be garnished if a debt is still owed from a divorce decree? (College tuition) Also, ex-spouse (disability recipient) has an outstanding warrant and has fled state to avoid sentencing.
November 19, 2013
The facts you shared are unclear to me. Consult with your divorce lawyer or a lawyer who has consumer law experience to learn what, if any, liability you or your ex-spouse have for the debt(s) in question.

Some states exempt all disability payments from garnishment. Some states carve out exceptions to that rule for child support and taxes. Other states exempt state and federal disability payments, but not payments from a private source, such as an insurance company. Your lawyer will be able to answer your questions in a minute or two.
Danie J.
November 11, 2013
I live on SSI, and went to hospital in September 2010 for lung problems. Now the local monopolized health clinic says I owe them $1,800 for allegedly seeing a doctor in the ER, was never sent a bill, nor when I went to their billing would they give me bill. What can I do? I have been black-balled from seeing any of their doctors and I have serious specialized medical needs. What can I do? What rights do I have?
November 11, 2013
Contact your county's social services department and learn what programs your county offers for low-income residents who have chronic medical issues. Also, check to see if you are eligible for Medicare.
Lee K.
Flagler Beach, FL  |  September 28, 2013
Bill, Your articles have been very informative to me in deciding the best options for me to reduce debt. My question is: Can a creditor garnishee or affect my 401K?
September 29, 2013
Thank you for your kind words, Lee.

As a general rule, a judgment-creditor will not be able to garnish your 401(k) account. However, if you take money out of your account and deposit it into your bank account, the funds are subject to a bank levy consistent with your state's collection laws.
Dwight J.
October 25, 2012
Hi Bill, California tax authorities say I owe them money. They have a EWO against my work wages now. But I am temporarily disabled for a few months and have applied for CA SDI (state disability benefits) for benefits. Is my temporary state disability income garnishable? Thank you.
October 25, 2012
I could not find a definitive answer at either the CA Franchise Tax Board Web site or the CA Employment Development Department site. It is my understanding that your CA SDI income would be exempt from levy. However, I suggest that you contact either the CA FTB or EDD directly, to get an authoritative answer.
Yolanda G.
Monrovia, CA  |  February 24, 2012
I'm considering filing chapter 7 bankruptcy. My concern is my grandmother receives her social security check directly deposited with a bank which I have a savings and checking and a credit card on file. If i'm noted on my grandmothers bank account; can the bank get the monies owed out of her account which I'm noted on as well; as I sign her checks for her monthly bills. No other monies are deposited in her account other than SSI. I'm not working so I don't have any funds in my personal checking of savings account at this same institution but do owe a credit card on file.
February 25, 2012
I do not know what "noted" on a bank account means. If this is a joint account where both you and the other person gave the bank your Social Security or tax ID numbers when you opened (or added another person to) the account, then a judgment against one joint account holder places the account at risk of an account levy. This is sometimes called an account freeze or account garnishment.

Joint accounts create more problems than they solve. If you share joint accounts, close them. Open separate accounts at your bank or credit union, and use the bank's online banking Web site to transfer funds from one account to another as needed.
Alicia B.
Hollywood, FL  |  July 19, 2011
Bill, I co-signed for my son's private school loans, which he is defaulting on. My only income in Florida is Social Security retirement benefits; a little over $1,000 per month. At my age, I can't handle even a part-time job and I also take care of my Mom. When the time comes, can the collectors place a bank levy on my SS income (which is direct-deposited to my bank, as mandated by the government)?
July 19, 2011
You mentioned the student loans are private. Please reread the original answer above for the answer to your question about private debts and Social Security garnishment.

Regarding federal student loans, Social Security benefits are off-limits for garnishment, which is called an "off-set" when conducted by a branch of the US government, by the Dept. of Education.
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