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

Worried senior couple with documents sitting in kitchen at home
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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.

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. If you’re behind on your federal income taxes, for example, the IRS can take no more than 15% of your monthly Social Security benefit.

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.

Get Tax Debt Help

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.

What To Do If Your Benefits Are Being Garnished

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.

If your Social Security benefits are being garnished due to federal tax debt, you may want to reach out to a tax resolution company to help you settle it. Some companies, such as Tax Relief Advocates, offer a free consultation where an tax expert will assess your situation and walk you through possible solutions. They may also be able to help you significantly reduce the amount you owe.

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