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Can Social Security payments be garnished?

Yes, depending on the type of debt. Retirement, spousal and survivor benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) 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 (although these are largely immune from garnishment during the government's pandemic moratorium on collecting student debt payments).

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

Federal income taxes: If you are in arrears, in most cases the Internal Revenue Service can take no more than 15 percent of your monthly Social Security benefit.

Student loans: Withholding benefits to repay student loans in default has been on hold for most borrowers since March 2020. Under Fresh Start, a U.S. Department of Education debt relief initiative announced in April, that will remain the case until one year after the end of the federal repayment pause. That would keep garnishment for student loan collections off the table until at least Dec. 31, 2023.

When garnishment is in effect, up to 15 percent of benefits can be withheld to repay student debt. However, unlike with taxes, garnishment for student loan defaults can’t leave you with less than $750 in benefits a month.

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 income can be garnished for child support or alimony. 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.

Updated September 12, 2022