Social Security Benefits and Garnishment

Can Social Security Benefits be Garnished?

The most common type of garnishment is wage garnishment – which is when your wages are withheld to pay a third-party debt.  But other assets, such as bank accounts, can also be subject to garnishment.  If you’re receiving Social Security benefits, you may wonder whether garnishment could apply to these monthly payments.  The answer is yes – in certain situations, your Social Security benefits can be garnished.

Section 207 of the Social Security Act does not allow for garnishment of Social Security benefits by anyone other than the Federal Government. This means that your Social Security payments are not subject to garnishment for commercial debts, like unpaid credit cards, auto loans, or mortgages.

Circumstances in which the federal government can place a garnishment on Social Security benefits include:

  • To collect unpaid child support or spousal support (alimony,) even if the support entitlement has been assigned to the State.  In the event of multiple child-support garnishments, the Social Security Administration requires that some money be paid on each order, and that current child support due be paid before any child support arrearages. Garnishment for alimony is considered a second-priority, after child support payments are calculated, and garnishments can be reduced by up to 10% if the beneficiary is supporting another spouse and/or child.
  • For payment of delinquent taxes.  A maximum of 15% of your monthly wages can be garnished to pay overdue tax liabilities.  Although not technically a garnishment, a beneficiary can also elect to have a portion of their benefit check withheld to pay a current year’s tax obligation.
  • To pay money owed to other federal agencies, such as delinquent student loans owed to the Department of Education.
  • If you’ve been ordered by a court to make payments under the “Mandatory Victim Restitution Act,” which can require those convicted of certain crimes to pay monetary compensation to their victims.

The Social Security Administration’s legal obligation in fulfilling a Social Security garnishment ends when you receive your benefit money.  However, funds clearly identifiable as Social Security benefits continue to be protected under the Social Security Act, for instance, if they’re held in a bank account that’s subject to garnishment.

Similar to wage garnishments, you can’t appeal the implementation of garnishment orders through the Social Security Administration, and any request to modify or dismiss a garnishment order would need to be filed with the issuing court.

These provisions apply to all types of Social Security benefits, including retirement, disability, and survivor’s benefits.  However, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, (the needs-based counterpart to Social Security disability benefits) cannot be garnished under any circumstances.

An attorney with experience handling wage garnishment issues should be consulted for any questions regarding the garnishment of Social Security benefits.

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