How much can actually be garnished depends on what you owe for. If you owe back taxes to the IRS, 15 percent of your Social Security benefits can be taken each month until the debt is paid in full. The government uses the Federal Payment Levy Program to garnish your payments.
If you owe money on a student loan — it doesn't matter how long ago you were in school — the first $750 of your monthly benefits is off-limits to garnishment. After that, the government can shave off up to 15 percent.
And if you owe past or current child or spousal support you could lose as much as 50 to 65 percent of your benefits. 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.
You also need to know that before your Social Security benefits are garnished, you'll receive several letters of notice from the IRS, and be given ample opportunity to make a pay arrangement. If you don't, the agency will start docking your monthly checks.
If you believe your accounts are being frozen or garnished improperly, you'll need to seek legal help. The American Bar Association provides links to free and low-cost legal help in your area online at findlegalhelp.org. Or, call the Eldercare Locator at (800) 677-1116 for referrals.
Send questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or go to SavvySenior.org.