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Can Social Security payments be garnished?

Yes, depending on the type of debt. Social Security benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments can be garnished to pay child support and alimony; court-ordered restitution to a crime victim; back taxes; and non-tax debt owed to a federal agency, such as student loans or some federally funded home loans.

There are limits on how much of your payment can be garnished:

  • If you are in arrears on federal income taxes, in most cases the Internal Revenue Service can take no more than 15 percent of your monthly Social Security benefit.
  • The garnishment rate for defaulted student loans is also 15 percent but, unlike with taxes, garnishment can’t leave you with less than $750 in benefits a month.
  • If you are behind on court-ordered child support or alimony, the federal Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) allows garnishment of up to 50 percent of your benefits if you are supporting a spouse or child apart from the subject of the court order and up to 60 percent if you are not. (Another 5 percent can be tacked on if you are 12 or more weeks in arrears.) Most states follow the CCPA, but some have their own regulations on how much of a debtor’s income can be garnished; if there is a conflict, the lesser amount applies.

Social Security benefits are protected when it comes to private debt like medical costs, car loans and credit card bills. Creditors in such cases can get a court order to garnish money from your work paychecks or bank accounts, but federal law prevents them from touching Social Security benefits.

Keep in mind

  • If you believe your benefits are being garnished in error, Social Security can’t help you. You’ll have to take it up with the government body that says you owe the money — for example, the IRS or the state court overseeing your child support.
  • Garnishment protection is stronger for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Payments under this Social Security-administered program cannot be garnished for private debt or for any of the reasons noted above.

 

Published October 10, 2018

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