DEAR SAVVY SENIOR: I have some outstanding debts and would like to find out if my Social Security checks can be garnished. What can you tell me?
Old and in Debt
DEAR OLD: Whether your Social Security benefits are garnishable or not depends on who you owe. Banks and other financial creditors, for example, can't touch your Social Security checks. But if Uncle Sam is collecting on a debt, some of your benefits are fair game. Here's what you should know.
If you have credit card debts, medical bills, unpaid personal loans or payday loans, you'll be happy to know that your Social Security benefits are safe from your creditors (those you owe).
But, be aware that your creditors can still take legal action against you to recover what you owe them, and depending on your state's law, they may be able to garnish your wages and tap into other allowable assets, if you have any. But they can't take the money you receive from Social Security. Nor can they touch Supplemental Security Income (SSI), veterans benefits, federal employee and civil service retirement benefits, and benefits administered by the Railroad Retirement Board Administration.
To ensure your Social Security or other government benefits are protected from creditors, you need to have them direct deposited into your bank account, or to a Direct Express Debit MasterCard account (see godirect.org). Benefits deposited by check into your bank account aren't protected. Also, be sure you don't transfer your benefits to another account, or else the protection is void. And don't have credit cards or other loans at the bank where your benefits are deposited. Money owed to a bank, if it also holds the deposit account, can be frozen.
If, however, you owe money to Uncle Sam, it's a very different story. The federal government can garnish a portion of 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. (If you receive SSI, those benefits cannot be garnished under any circumstance.)
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