Social Security Benefit Garnishment Rules

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Highlights


  • 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.

Bills Bottom Line

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.

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When Creditors Are Allowed To Garnish Social Security Benefits

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 :

“If a creditor other than the federal government tries to garnish your Social Security benefits, inform them that such an action violates . 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 ( (PDF)).
  • Under the Mandatory Victim Restitution Act, certain civil penalties provide the right to garnish benefits under .

The Social Security Administration Web page 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? 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 ().

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 Bills.com resource 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 at Bills.com. See the Bills.com article if you do not receive Social Security benefits.

Bills Action Plan

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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6 Comments

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  • DJ
    Oct, 2012
    Dwight
    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.
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Oct, 2012
      Bill
      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.
      0 Votes

  • YG
    Feb, 2012
    Yolanda
    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.
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Feb, 2012
      Bill
      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.
      0 Votes

  • AB
    Jul, 2011
    Alicia
    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)?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Jul, 2011
      Bill
      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.
      0 Votes