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Is Your Social Security Safe from Debt Collectors?

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Is Your Social Security Safe from Debt Collectors?

With several important exceptions, your social security check is safe or "exempt" from claims of creditors. For example, if you can no longer afford to make payments on your credit cards because of illness, job loss or other reason, the federal government will not allow what you owe to be deducted or "garnished" from your social security payment. The credit card company usually cannot collect from your bank once your payment is deposited. The money in your account, however, may not be automatically protected. You might need to tell or prove to the creditor or bank that your money is from social security and is exempt. Even if you owe money to the bank where your social security is deposited, your social security funds are usually still protected. One possible exception could occur if you were to save a substantial amount of your social security over time. As a practical matter, this seldom happens because if you were able to save a substantial amount of your social security, you should and would be paying your bills.

The main exceptions to the general rule that your social security is safe and "exempt" from the claims of creditors involve Federal Tax Bills, Other Non-tax Federal Debts, and Child Support and Alimony Obligations.

Federal Tax Bills. The IRS can assess up to 15% of your social security benefit to collect past due tax bills less than 10 years old. For example, if you owed $450 in taxes and your monthly benefit is $1000, the IRS could deduct $150 directly from your social security check each month for 3 months.

Non-Tax Federal Debts. Other federal agencies can also collect debts directly from your social security check. Examples include food stamp overpayments, federal student loan debts and federal mortgage loans in default. As for tax debts, up to 15% of your social security benefit can be deducted. Unlike tax debts, however, the first $750 cannot be withheld. For example, suppose you receive $850 in social security and owe $250 because of a food stamp overpayment. This would result in a deduction of $100 from your monthly benefit for each of the first 2 months and $50 in the 3rd month. In this example, even though 15% of $850 is $127.50, no more than $100 could be deducted from your monthly payment because your social security benefit cannot be reduced below $750.

Child Support and Alimony. Federal law allows a maximum of between 50% and 65% of your social security check to be garnished for past-due child support or alimony. The maximum percentage applicable to you will depend on whether you also support your spouse or another dependent child and whether the garnishment order is for support that is more than 12 weeks behind. A lesser amount may be withheld if you can show the requested amount or percentage would create a hardship.

The above provisions do not apply to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. For example, if you receive $400 in social security and $265 in SSI, the government could make a claim against the social security portion, but not the SSI portion. The laws governing social security collection issues can be complex. You may want to contact an experienced attorney for assistance in dealing with these kinds of issues.

Last Review and Update: Jul 25, 2002