Can Debt Collectors Garnish Your Social Security?
If you are an elderly or disabled American—or are receiving Social Security Payments for any other reason—you may fear that debt collectors could seize or garnish your income. You may feel trapped and alone. The debt collectors may have suggested they could, or would take your money if you do not pay them. Can they do it? Not legally, but there are tricks you need to watch out for.
If you are dependent upon Social Security in any way you must read this entire article. You must read on beyond the simple answer because a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing—and it is specially dangerous here. The real answer can be different than the short answer.
Section 207 of the Social Security Act provides that: "none of the moneys paid or payable or rights existing under this title shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process, or to the operation of any bankruptcy or insolvency." However, as with so many things in the law, the simple answer is only the beginning of the question.
Let's consider the way bank accounts are seized or “garnished.” What happens is that someone obtains a judgment against another person. These judgments often come as a result of default judgments—all too often against people who never owed anybody any money. But once there is a judgment, it is “collectible.” The collectors have a right to, and often do, go to the supposed debtor's bank and serve a garnishment notice on the bank without providing any notice of that fact to the debtor.
The garnishment takes effect immediately and “freezes” the account. The bank will not honor any outstanding checks (unless the account balance is larger than the debt owed) until the account becomes “unfrozen.” The bank then prepares and sends notice to the debtor. As far as I can tell, the bank is rarely in a hurry to do this: they will be charging overdraft or NSF fees for every check that bounces. It is a tremendous windfall for the bank. A few days later, the horrified debtor learns that his or her checks have been bouncing and huge fees accumulating.
In most states, the banks hold the assets they seize for a period of time before turning them over to the debt collector. During this time, the debtor can—if they have the resources and emotional presence of mind—challenge and stop the garnishment. But this takes time, and it requires that the person being garnished have some resources. And that is not always the case. Plus, during that time a person of limited income could be evicted, be unable to purchase medicine, or other essentials. And all the while the banks are charging fees which they may, or may not, ever return.
There have been a number of news storiesof collection activities in New York City and elsewhere. The debt collectors were garnishing the bank accounts of the elderly whose accounts were undeniably largely—and often exclusively--made up of Social Security payments. During the litigation to untangle the amounts of garnishable versus ungarnishable amounts, the elderly were facing homelessness and other deprivations. Some of them died, and hundreds of thousands or millions were subjected to extreme hardship and crisis.
For a little more of this tragic and horrifying story, read “Unholy Alliance of Bank and Collection Agency Fleeces Social Security Recipients,” Rowley, Nov. 07, If you read the Rowley article, you will notice that all the dispossessed had one thing in common. They were all trying to work with the debt collectors. The elderly were trying to pay, and were paying, and of course this is the way the debt collectors knew where their bank accounts were. Do not make that mistake: do not allow the debt collectors to know where your money is.
In New York, landmark legislation is now protecting the elderly, thank goodness. Social Security Rights. However, these protections do not extend beyond New York. You may be at risk if your city or state has not passed similar laws, and I am not aware of any that have.
If the debt collectors know about your bank accounts, you face a similar risk. One possible solution is to have two bank accounts: one which is exclusively funded by Social Security or other exempt payments, and the other which is not. Notify the bank receiving Social Security payments that the account consists exclusively of Social Security payments. I would also suggest that the accounts should be in different banks, and information regarding either account should never be given to the debt collectors. Pay troubled accounts with postal money orders rather than checks. A still safer approach is to make all payments with money orders.
The actions I suggest above may not completely eliminate the risk, but they go a long way towards protecting you from some of the worst consequences of debt collector damage. But this speaks to the "worst case" scenario - where the debt collectors have a judgment and are trying to collect. If you've read my other articles, you know I believe you should never let them start with that advantage. You can defend yourself, and if you do so with a little energy and a little help, you should be able to beat any debt buyer/debt collector.
If you are being harassed by debt collectors and worry about them taking your money, and all you have is in Social Security benefits, you'll probably be okay. But if you want to defend yourself and prevent a judgment, or if some of your assets might be reached by the debt collectors, then you should fight. And if you do, you'll have a good chance of winning. Membership with our site gets you our teleconferences and ecourses for free, plus gives you many other benefits. If you email me at info@YourLegalLegUp.com and tell me you are Social Security dependent, we'll offer a discount on the Debt Defense System.