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Can Your Retirement Benefits Get Garnished for Debts?

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If you find yourself in a financial bind during retirement, you might wonder if your creditors can go after your Social Security check, pension, or 401(k) account. You worked hard for decades to earn the right to your retirement income, and now, because of massive bills from a medical crisis or another economic downturn, you are afraid you might lose all or a significant portion of these assets. Can your retirement benefits get garnished for debts?

The short answer is, it depends. One of the main factors is the type of debt or financial obligation. Your retirement income, like your monthly Social Security check, cannot get garnished for some debts.  However, you can lose some of your benefits for other types of debts. The kind of retirement asset also matters, when it comes to garnishment. For example, the law treats Social Security benefits different than retirement savings, like a 401(k).

Social Security Benefits and Garnishments

If you owe back taxes, the government can take up to 15 percent of your Social Security check, even if this levy leaves you without enough money to pay your living expenses. The government can also take up to 15 percent of your Social Security check for delinquent student loans, but only to the point at which you still get at least $750 a month in Social Security benefits.

You can lose much more of your Social Security income, if you owe child support. There is no 15 percent limit or $750 rule for child support garnishments. The court can take up to 60 percent of your retirement check for child support, and 65 percent if you are more than 12 weeks behind. If you support another child who is not part of the garnishment, the court can take up to 50 percent of your Social Security check.

An interesting feature is that your bank has to protect up to two months’ worth of your Social Security benefits, but only if you receive the funds by direct deposit into your bank account or by a prepaid card. There is no protection for Social Security income you get in the form of a paper check.

The law treats pension income substantially the same as Social Security checks. Child support and government debts, like taxes and student loans, can garnish your pension check, but most other creditors cannot.

The Difference Between Garnishing Your Income and Your Bank Account

A creditor might not be able to garnish your pension or Social Security check, but the creditor can take the money after you deposit it into the bank, up to the legal limits. In other words, if you owe money to someone who gets a judgment against you, the creditor cannot intercept the funds before they get to you, but he can take the money after you put it into the bank.

Protections for Your 401(k) Account

Your retirement savings account, like a 401(k), gets many of the same protections (and lack thereof) as your pension or Social Security check. As long as the money stays in your 401(k) account, most creditors cannot take the funds. Once you withdraw money from your 401(k) and put it into the bank, however, a creditor can garnish the money from your bank account.

The IRS can go after your 401(k) account for government debts, like student loans and delinquent taxes. A court can also sometimes tap your 401(k) account for back child support and alimony (spousal support).

Every state has different regulations, and this article covers the general law. Be sure to talk to an elder law attorney near you.

For more information about estate planning in Orlando, FL (and throughout the rest of Central Florida), visit our estate planning website and be sure to subscribe to our complimentary estate planning e-newsletter while you are there.

References:

The Motley Fool. “Can Garnishment Be Put on Social Security or Pension Income?” (accessed December 19, 2019) https://www.fool.com/knowledge-center/can-garnishments-be-put-on-social-security-or-pens.aspx

Investopedia. “Can My 401(K) Be Seized or Garnished?” (accessed December 19, 2019) https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/090915/can-my-401k-be-seized-or-garnished.asp

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