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Can Social Security be garnished?

Social Security benefits can be garnished depending on the type of payments and debt you owe. These deductions are usually carried out for financial liabilities such as back taxes, student loans, child support payments and more. But there are limitations on how much a creditor can take.

Financial advisors can offer a holistic approach to helping you meet your long-term and retirement savings goals. Find a financial advisor today. 

How Garnishing Works

Through garnishing, government agencies, employers and creditors can deduct percentages of your Social Security benefits for unpaid debts. For instance, under the Consumer Credit Protection Act, an employer can withhold an employee’s earnings for child support payments, as long as a court order has been issued.

Court orders don’t always precede benefit garnishments, though. In fact, the IRS can garnish your benefits without a court order. But the legal practice of garnishing also comes with regulations. We explore those below.

Garnishing Limitations

Child support or Alimony

You’ll be subject to garnishment of up to 50% of your Social Security benefits if you’re supporting a spouse or child other than the one specified in the court order. If you aren’t supporting another spouse or child, up to 60% of your after-tax income can be garnished. Up to 65% of your earnings will be garnished if you’re more than 12 weeks in arrears.

If you’re more than 12 weeks behind, and you’re supporting another child or spouse, you’ll be subject to a garnishment of up to 55% of your earnings.

Student Loans

You’ll run into a garnishment rate of 15% if you default on your student loan payments. But there is a rule that protects your monthly benefits. Specifically, the government can’t leave you with less than $750 per month in benefits.

For instance, if you were receiving a monthly benefit of $800 and you missed a few student loan payments, you’d be subject to a garnishment fee of $120. You wouldn’t have to pay the entire fee since a $120 payment would leave you with less than $750 a month. Instead, the government would just take $70.

Federal income taxes

The 15% garnishment rate also applies to federal income taxes. If you’re in arrears, you’ll typically have to pay 15% of your Social Security benefits.

Bottom Line

Your Social Security benefits could be garnished for several reasons. They might be garnished for defaulted student loans, child support or alimony payments or back taxes. Nonetheless, the government doesn’t have complete control over your benefits, since most garnishments have rate limitations. Therefore, it’s wise to do your research so you aren’t blindsided by any Social Security benefit reductions.

Retirement Planning Tips for Beginners

  • Understanding your Social Security benefits is a crucial part of retirement planning. As you approach you golden years, it’s helpful to determine just how much you’ll earn in government-issued retirement funds. Our Social Security calculator can help.
  • Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool connects you with three local advisors for free.

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Rickie Houston CEPF® Rickie Houston writes on a variety of personal finance topics for SmartAsset. His expertise includes retirement and banking. Rickie is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®). He graduated from Boston University where he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He’s contributed to work published in the Boston Globe and has worked alongside award-winning faculty for the New England Center of Investigative Reporting at Boston University. Rickie also enjoys playing the guitar, traveling abroad and discovering new music. He is originally from Wilmington, North Carolina.
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