retirement

Can Social Security be garnished?

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Social Security card © iStock

If creditors and debt collectors are hounding you for money, you may wonder: Can Social Security be garnished? The answer is: It depends on to whom you owe money.

Banks and other financial creditors can't touch your Social Security benefits, but when the government is collecting on a debt, those funds are fair game.

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The federal government can garnish your benefits for repayment of several types of debts, including federal income taxes, federal student loans, child support and alimony, nontax debt owed to other federal agencies, defaulted federal home loans and certain civil penalties. Supplemental Security Income cannot be garnished under any circumstance.

"The only way [for the government] to get SSI back is that sometimes Social Security will get it back because they found out you aren't entitled to it," says Martin Hoffman, senior partner in the law offices of Hoffman, Larin & Agnetti P.A., which has several offices in South Florida.

What you can lose

Among the government creditors that can grab a piece of your Social Security check, the strongest arm belongs to the IRS. Via the Federal Payment Levy Program, Social Security benefits are subject to a 15 percent levy to pay delinquent taxes. Unlike nontax debts to other agencies, for which the first $750 of your monthly benefits are off-limits to garnishment, the IRS can take its 15 percent cut, regardless of how little money you're left with. Lump-sum death benefits and Social Security benefits paid to children are not subject to this levy.

Once the IRS has sent its final notice of an intent to levy, you have 30 days to make payment arrangements before the agency starts docking your monthly benefits.

If you owe money on a student loan, it doesn't matter how long ago you were in school. A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case (Lockhart v. U.S.) determined there is no statute of limitations on Social Security offsets to repay student loans. The government can shave off up to 15 percent, provided your remaining monthly benefit doesn't drop lower than $750.

Delinquent child support and alimony cases are processed through the national Court Ordered Garnishment System. In these situations, the maximum reduction to your benefits depends on the state where you live. The garnishment is limited to either the maximum allowed under state law or the maximum under the Consumer Credit Protection Act, or CCPA, whichever is less.

Per the CCPA, you can theoretically lose up to half your benefits if you are supporting a child or spouse in addition to the one involved in the court order; 60 percent if you're not supporting another child or spouse; and up to 65 percent if the original court-ordered support is more than 12 weeks in arrears.

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