Protection From Garnishment for Social Security, Veterans Benefits

A new treasury rule, effective May 1, 2011, will provide more protection to receipients of federal benefits from garnishment of their bank accounts.

Garnishment and Federal Benefits: The Basics

If a creditor gets a judgment against you, it has various tools to collect on that judgment. One tool allows the creditor to garnish (grab the money in) your bank account. But there are limits to garnishment. Judgment creditors cannot grab funds that come from certain sources, including some types of federal benefits such as Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, veterans benefits, and a few others.

Although these types of funds cannot be seized by creditors, in practice, when banks got a garnishment order in the past, they often froze all funds in the account (up to the amount of the debt), without regard to whether the funds were protected from garnishment. This means the bank accountholder would not be able to access those funds for weeks or months. The accountholder could object to the garnishment of the protected funds to prevent the bank from turning them over to the judgment creditor. But many people were unable to complete the paperwork and procedure to do so, and so lost funds that never should have been seized.

The New Rule: The Onus is on the Bank

The new rule puts the onus on the banks. Banks receiving garnishment orders must now determine if the bank account has protected federal benefits that have been electronically deposited into the account within the previous two months. If the bank discovers that there are protected funds, it cannot include those funds in the account freeze.

What This Means for Accountholders

Federal benefits received and deposited in a bank account via paper check are not protected by this new rule. Nor are funds received (even if received electronically) more than two months prior to the garnishment order. However, the regular state procedures for challenging a garnishment order will still be available for these types of funds. Federal benefit recipients currently receiving paper checks should consider switching to electronic deposit of their benefits.

For More Information

If you receive federal benefits and think you might need protection from bank garnishments, be sure to read about the nitty, gritty details of this new rule (this post just covers the very basics). For the short term, you can get an excellent summary of the new rule, as well as recommendations for how beneficiaries of federal benefits can best protect themselves, from the National Consumer Law Center at http://shop.consumerlaw.org/pdf/nclc-rpts-repo-jan-feb-2011.pdf.