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Can Social Security Legally Check My Bank Account?

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In a Nutshell

It is a common question – can the government see inside your bank account? The simple answer is no, but there are some reasons that your bank account may be checked if you're applying for Social Security benefits. Knowing how and why it happens, as well as some of the things that might affect your eligibility for Supplemental Security Income, will tell you whether these checks are nothing to worry about or something to be concerned about.

Written by Todd Carney, J.D. Harvard Law 2021.  
Updated October 30, 2021


Many Americans never stop to think about all the things that a Social Security number does for them. It is used on job applications and credit checks. It’s used for keeping track of your income taxes and medical insurance. Having a Social Security number gives you access to a number of different federal benefits, but it also may spark some questions. One question many people ask at one time or another is if all of this information is attached to your Social Security number, can the government use it to see inside your bank account?

The answer depends on the situation. If you are part of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the Social Security Administration (SSA) does actually have the legal authority to look into your account to check if you’re eligible for the program. 

One common assumption is that the government has the same authority to check into your accounts if you’re collecting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), but this isn’t the case. Eligibility for Supplemental Security Income is based on your assets, so the government needs to make sure SSI recipients are being honest about their eligibility. The disability insurance is based on your work history, so the balance in your bank account is not relevant.

This article will go into more detail about how and why the SSA checks your accounts as well as some of the things that might affect your eligibility for Supplemental Security Income.

Access to Bank Account Information

The Social Security Administration has a legal right to look inside someone’s bank account if they participate in the Supplemental Security Income program. This review serves as a way to investigate whether they actually fall under the requirements of the program.

Beneficiaries of the Social Security Disability Insurance program, on the other hand, don’t have to worry about the government checking their account to verify eligibility for that program. Since their eligibility is determined through their work history, they do not have any legal limitations on the assets that they can have. However, people in both programs will face recurring reviews to verify their eligibility.

The Supplemental Security Income program is specifically designed for people who have disabilities and limited resources. The government has determined that if someone is able to sufficiently gain a certain amount of resources, then they don’t need Supplemental Security Income. When you sign up for the program, you must provide permission for the government to be able to reach out to various financial institutions and check whether the information that you provided is accurate. This permission applies to both the first application for the program and the recurring checks of eligibility.

Additionally, a beneficiary of the program must allow the government to reach out to any account that the SSA considers an additional source of income or assets to the program participant. Examples include all of the typical bank or credit union accounts, like checking accounts. These can even be joint accounts. If someone fails to allow the SSA to check their account, they will not be eligible for Supplemental Security Income.

Someone can receive Supplemental Security Income payments through either direct deposit or on a specialized debit card called a “Direct Express® Debit Mastercard®”. The government recommends receiving the Social Security check by direct deposit because it’s faster, more convenient, and more secure than the Direct Express debit card.

The federal government protects Social Security funds from garnishments by debt collectors. A noted exception to this rule is that SSDI can be garnished for paying back taxes to the IRS, for paying student loan debts, and for paying child support to a plaintiff who has received a judgment against you. Supplemental Security Income, however, cannot face garnishment for any of these things. This general protection can provide peace of mind if someone is facing calls from debt collectors.

If you have a question about your Social Security benefits, you can contact the Social Security office. When you call, be sure to have your Social Security card and/or number ready. This site also has a FAQ that helps people with questions on Social Security disability benefits, retirement benefits, or their SSN.

Resource Limit for SSI Recipients

In order to be eligible for Supplemental Security Income, a claimant is not allowed to have more than $2,000 in total countable resources. For couples, this amount is increased to $3,000. Some assets do not count toward your SSI resource cap, such as a house, a car, or personal possessions in your home. 

This process defines resources as items that someone can easily use or exchange as a means to purchase food or housing. This could be cash on hand or in a checking or savings account. Resources could also be stocks, U.S. savings bonds, or even a life insurance policy that could be cashed in. Land that is not tied to your primary residence is considered a resource, as are vehicles that are not your primary source of transportation. One thing that is usually not counted as a resource is a line of credit, so a beneficiary of this program can have their own credit card (unless someone else makes payments on the cards for them — then it counts as income).

In general, the government wants to ensure that the Supplemental Security Income program is used to assist those that genuinely have a need for assistance in paying for food or housing. To that end, the government tends to define anything that can be sold for cash, or serve as a means for food or housing, as a resource that counts toward the SSI eligibility limit. 

Furthermore, Supplemental Security Income has a special category known as “deemed” resources for a family member or associate. This category accounts for a specified amount of resources that each associate of the participant can own; family members and associates included in this category are the participant’s spouse, their parents, and their in-laws, as well as an immigrant-sponsor (if they have one) or their spouse. The “deemed resources” category exists so that a program participant won’t be able to hide their resources with any of these associates in order to make it appear that they have fewer assets than they actually do.

It is worth noting that children are subject to a separate set of rules on Supplemental Security Income because minors are usually dependent on their parents and have not amassed their own resources. When a minor lives with one parent or guardian, then the government does not count $2,000 of the parent’s countable resources. When a minor lives with two parents, the limit is increased to $3,000. The SSA will count any of the guardians’ resources beyond these limits as a part of the child’s cap of $2,000.

Safeguarding Your SSI Eligibility

Before you actually apply for Supplemental Security Income, it’s a good idea that you meet with a disability lawyer and go over your resources. Having this expertise can hopefully prevent any mistakes, overpayments, or surprises.

If a review determines that your resources have gone above the limit, the government has the right to subject your wages or your accounts to garnishments in order to collect any benefit overpayments back from you. If you do receive assets somewhere down the line that are beyond the eligible limit for Supplemental Security Income, it is a good idea to set aside any further payments from Supplemental Security Income. This way, if the SSA reviews your account and wants their funds back, you have them on hand and available to give over right away. The garnishment process can be stressful and it’s best to avoid it if you can.

It’s also a good idea for you to keep as much autonomy around your bank account as possible. This means having only your money in accounts with your name on them. When the government reviews your account, they will count all of the resources in the account as yours, even if some don’t belong to you. Additionally, the government will count your spouse’s resources as yours, regardless of whether such resources are actually shared or not. Keeping money that shouldn’t be counted towards your eligibility cap completely separate and not attached to your name could be very helpful.

Let’s Summarize…

If you are a claimant of SSI, then your bank account will be subject to scrutiny from the Social Security Administration. This review occurs because the government wants to ensure that you actually need these benefits, so there is a legal cap on the amount of resources that someone can have in order to be eligible for the program. The resources of your spouse and other close associates will likely be subject to review as well. Prior to applying for disability benefits, it’s a good idea to meet with an attorney to review your resources.



Written By:

Todd Carney, J.D. Harvard Law 2021

LinkedIn

Todd Carney is a writer and graduate of Harvard Law School. While in law school, Todd worked in a clinic that helped pro-bono clients file for bankruptcy. Todd also studied several aspects of how the law impacts consumers. Todd has written over 40 articles for sites such as RealC... read more about Todd Carney, J.D. Harvard Law 2021

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