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Social Security and Garnishment 101

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In a Nutshell

If you collect Social Security as retirement income or benefits known as SSI or SSDI, rest assured that most creditors can’t take this money from your bank account or from you before the money lands in your account.

Written by the Upsolve TeamLegally reviewed by Attorney Andrea Wimmer
Updated May 17, 2021

This article will explain how Social Security benefits are protected from creditors under most circumstances. While this income remains safe in most situations, there are still a few different ways Social Security can be seized by a creditor to pay a debt. One way involves the  federal government trying to recover back taxes or unpaid federal student loans. Another way involves combining Social Security benefits and other money in one bank account. If Social Security can’t be distinguished from other types of income, you can lose it and have to formally petition to have it returned to you. The solution is maintaining a separate bank account for Social Security benefits. This will prevent any questions about the source of the money and protect it from creditors. 

Most Of The Time, Social Security Benefits Are Protected From Garnishment

Most Americans can collect “Social Security” when they reach a certain age. Social Security retirement benefits are made available when Americans become eligible. This usually depends on an individual’s age. 

Aside from these benefits, there are two other types of Social Security income that act as supplemental security income. If eligible, you can collect these monthly benefits from the Social Security Administration. 

Types of Social Security Income

The first type is Supplemental Social Security Income (SSI) which is paid to disabled persons and adults over the age of 65. You qualify if your income is low enough to meet requirements and your situation meets other eligibility criteria. 

The second type is Social Security Disability Insurance, also known as SSDI. These benefits are paid to adults who suffer from a disability and are unable or are restricted in their ability to work. The Social Security Administration has a long list of conditions that qualify as disabilities.

These types of federal benefits can help many Americans who struggle to earn enough income. What’s even better is that, in most situations, Social Security benefits like SSI and SSDI are protected from creditors. You’re protected even if a creditor has a garnishment order, which is a court order to seize your wages. 

Protecting Your Social Security Benefits

Most creditors cannot garnish or take money from your Social Security check before it is deposited into your bank account. The problem is that once this money is combined with other money, a creditor with a bank levy can legally take it. You can get your protected income back, but this situation involves time and trouble that can be easily avoided with a little careful planning. 

A simple solution involves keeping your Social Security in a different bank account. Receive your Social Security check by direct deposit in a special account and never put any other money in that account. This will eliminate any problems if a creditor ever uses wage garnishment or bank levy to collect a debt.

Any income, including Social Security, is potentially at risk once you get behind on credit card payments or medical bills. A creditor may try to collect the debt on its own or through third-party debt collectors. If this fails, it will file a lawsuit. If you fail to answer the lawsuit, you will lose and the creditor will get a default judgment. 

A creditor with a judgment usually will seek a court order to garnish wages or a bank account. This can cause your Social Security to be at risk. If your Social Security is commingled or mixed with other income from another source, a bank levy to take money from your bank account may separate you from your protected income until you act to get it returned to you. 

If other income is subject to garnishment, bankruptcy may be the best solution. Bankruptcy will eliminate most court judgments. A Chapter 7 case can stop the garnishment of debts for credit cards and medical bills. Keep in mind that there are alternatives to filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case. Filing a Chapter 13 case may be a better option.

Seeking debt relief through bankruptcy can free up money to pay unpaid back taxes and unpaid student loans. This will help you avoid using your Social Security benefits to repay these debts instead of using it for more important expenses. 

Upsolve is a nonprofit organization committed to helping consumers with concerns about repaying their debts. We provide an easy-to-use web  application that can help you move forward, especially if legal advice is not immediately available. 

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When Can My Social Security Be Garnished?

Despite the priority on protecting your Social Security, there are times when certain creditors can garnish it. Under federal law, the only creditor that can garnish Social Security is a government body.

Your money may be taken by federal agencies like the IRS for unpaid back taxes. You can lose your Social Security benefits if you have unpaid student loans. Government benefits that are overpaid to an individual can also be garnished by the federal government.

Not only can a state agency garnish your wages or bank account if you are in arrears paying child support or alimony, but it can also garnish Social Security benefits as well.

Remember, these types of garnishments can generally be used to remove money, including Social Security, from your bank account directly, without a court order.

Let’s Summarize. . .

If you collect Social Security as retirement income or benefits known as SSI or SSDI, rest assured that most creditors can’t take this money from your bank account or from you before the money lands in your account. To prevent this income from being garnished, it’s a good idea to distinguish it from money received from sources other than Social Security. You might want to consider having a separate bank account for Social Security benefits. 

There are exceptions to this general rule. If you owe the government money, federal law allows it to garnish Social Security for unpaid income taxes and unpaid student loans. Also, if you have alimony and child support arrears, or If you receive an overpayment of government benefits, federal law allows your Social Security benefits to be garnished.

Filing bankruptcy can free up money so you can avoid having your Social Security garnished. If creditors for other types of debts are garnishing your wages, bankruptcy will stop them and any further losses of wages. Upsolve’s free mobile app makes it easy to file bankruptcy without an attorney. If you do need an attorney, Upsolve can connect you with one in your local area.

Written By:

The Upsolve Team

Upsolve is fortunate to have a remarkable team of bankruptcy attorneys, as well as finance and consumer rights professionals, as contributing writers to help us keep our content up to date, informative, and helpful to everyone.

Attorney Andrea Wimmer


Andrea practiced exclusively as a bankruptcy attorney in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases for more than 10 years before joining Upsolve, first as a contributing writer and editor and ultimately joining the team as Managing Editor. While in private practice, Andrea handled... read more about Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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