Can My Social Security Check Be Garnished to Collect on a Student Loan Debt?

Can My Social Security Check Be Garnished to Collect on a Student Loan Debt?
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Last updated: March 2006

The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette.


Can the government garnish my social security check because I owe money on a student loan?


Social Security benefits can be garnished to repay Federal debts, but never below $750 per month. A garnishment can take 15%, or the amount over $750, whichever is less.

You’re right that Social Security benefits are generally protected against garnishments. Social Security, along with just about every other government benefit, is “exempt” from collection. That means nobody can get at it to pay a debt.

Nobody, that is, except Uncle Sam himself, by his G-men at the U.S. Treasury. Since 1996, the Debt Collection Improvement Act has authorized the Treasury Department to collect money owed to the Federal government by garnishing Federal benefits and pay. Within the past few months, garnishments of Social Security benefits have actually begun.
Only “non-tax” Federal debts can be collected this way. Such debts can result from (among other things) unpaid student loans, defaulted HUD, FmHA, or FHA mortgages, and overpaid Federal benefits, including Food Stamps.

You should get lots of advance notice before any garnishment occurs. The agency you owe the money to is supposed to notify you 180 days before your garnishment begins. The agency's notice should tell you how you can dispute the debt, or have it verified. 

In addition, Treasury says it will tell you two more times before any money is withheld. Then you should get another notice each time your Social Security check is actually garnished, telling you what agency is being repaid, and how much left there is to repay.

The most that can be garnished from Social Security benefits is 15%, and your benefits should never be garnished below $750 per month. If, for example, your monthly benefit is $800, 15% won’t be taken—just enough to reduce your check down to the $750 floor.

Also, only your net monthly benefit gets garnished, after deductions for things like Medicare.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) will never be garnished. (Except to repay SSI overpayments, which can be recovered by a 10% reduction of benefits.)

If you owe the money, about the only thing you can do to stop a garnishment is to pay what you owe, or make a payment arrangement.

When Federal agencies garnish your pay, it’s called an administrative garnishment. That’s the only garnishment that can happen without first taking you to court.  Regular creditors, unconnected to the Federal government, have to sue and get a court judgment before they can try to garnish your wages.

Regular creditors however, will never be able to garnish your Social Security check.  For non-Federal debts, Social Security remains off-limits.

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