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 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.
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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).
Some states exempt more than two months of Social Security
Maryland, for example, allows its residents to exempt $6,000 in their bank or credit union accounts. See the Bills.com 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 Bills.com. See the Bills.com article Wage Garnishment if you do not receive Social Security benefits.
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If you receive Social Security income and are facing a judgment or already have a judgment, be sure that you are aware that:
- A judgment-creditor may not garnish your Social Security benefits
- Two months-worth of benefits are exempt from a bank 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. A lawyer will explain the risks of having outstanding debts, and help you formulate an asset protection plan suited to your individual circumstances.