Social Security: When Can Your Benefits Be Garnished Due to Unpaid Debt?

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Because Social Security income is intended as a financial safety net for retirees and other qualified Americans, most benefits are exempt from garnishment, levies, attachments and other legal processes. However, there are a few exceptions.

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According to the Social Security Administration’s Social Security Handbook, if you have any unpaid federal taxes, the IRS can levy your Social Security benefits. Your benefits can also be garnished to collect unpaid child support and/or alimony. In addition, Social Security benefits can be garnished in response to Court Ordered Victims Restitution.

Your benefits might also be reduced or offset to collect delinquent debts owed to other federal agencies, such as student loans owed to the U.S. Department of Education.

Garnishments apply to retirement, spousal and survivor benefits, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments can’t be garnished or levied.

One thing to keep in mind is that there are limits on how much of your Social Security payment can be garnished, according to the AARP. If your federal income taxes are in arrears, for example, the IRS can take no more than 15% of your monthly Social Security benefit.

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In terms of court-ordered child support or alimony: The Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) allows garnishment of up to 50% of your benefits if you are supporting a spouse or child apart from the subject of the court order, and up to 60% if you are not. An additional 5% can be garnished if you are 12 or more weeks in arrears.

As AARP noted, Social Security garnishments to repay federal student loans in default have been on hold for most borrowers since March 2020. Under the Education Department’s Fresh Start debt relief initiative, this will remain the case until one year after the end of the federal repayment pause. Because the pause is due to end on Dec. 31, 2022, garnishments for student loan collections will not resume until at least Dec. 31, 2023.

When student loan garnishments do resume, up to 15% of your Social Security benefits can be withheld to repay student debt. However, garnishment for student loan defaults can’t leave you with less than $750 in benefits a month.

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

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If you believe your benefits are being garnished in error, Social Security can’t help you, according to the AARP. To contest garnishments, you will need to take it up with the government body that says you owe the money, such as the IRS or the state court overseeing your child support.

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About the Author

Vance Cariaga is a London-based writer, editor and journalist who previously held staff positions at Investor’s Business Daily, The Charlotte Business Journal and The Charlotte Observer. His work also appeared in Charlotte Magazine, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Business North Carolina magazine. He holds a B.A. in English from Appalachian State University and studied journalism at the University of South Carolina. His reporting earned awards from the North Carolina Press Association, the Green Eyeshade Awards and AlterNet. In addition to journalism, he has worked in banking, accounting and restaurant management. A native of North Carolina who also writes fiction, Vance’s short story, “Saint Christopher,” placed second in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Two of his short stories appear in With One Eye on the Cows, an anthology published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2019. His debut novel, Voodoo Hideaway, was published in 2021 by Atmosphere Press.
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