Can the Government Seize Your Social Security Benefits?

Benefits Can Be Withheld to Pay Off Certain Debts

Social Security worker holding up a benefit check
U.S Treasury Facility Prints Social Security Checks. William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

Yes, you earned every cent of your Social Security benefits, but the federal government can garnish your benefits to pay off certain debts.

While banks, credit card companies, and other private financial creditors are prohibited by law from going after Social Security benefits, the government is not.

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the federal government can garnish Social Security benefits to repay:

  • Child support;
  • Alimony or restitution;
  • federal income taxes; and
  • non-tax debt owed to federal agencies.

NOTE: Under no circumstances, can Supplemental Security Income (SSI) be garnished – by anybody -- for the repayment of debts. However, the government can seek full repayment of SSI benefits if the SSA finds out the benefits were claimed fraudulently.

Delinquent Child Support and Alimony

At the request of state courts, the (SAA) can withhold Social Security benefits to pay child support, alimony or restitution. State laws determine a valid garnishment order. By law, SSA can garnish current and continuing monthly benefits, but does not make retroactive adjustments.

Garnishments for child support and alimony are processed by the SSA’s Court Ordered Garnishment System in cooperation with the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement.

Garnishment amounts are limited to maximums allowed by state laws or maximums set by the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) whichever is less.

Depending on the number of children involved and the length of time the support or alimony payments have been delinquent, from 50% to 60% of the monthly benefit may be garnished under the CCPA.

Court orders for garnishment of benefits to repay child support or alimony cannot be appealed to Social Security.

The SSA recommends that if you disagree with the garnishment, you should contact an attorney or representative where the court issued the order.

Delinquent Federal Income Tax

The Treasury Department can withhold Social Security benefits to collect overdue federal tax payments.

After issuing a Notice of Levy under the Federal Payment Levy Program, the Treasury Department can withhold up to 15% of your monthly Social Security benefits for as long as it takes to pay off your tax debt.

Garnishment of Social Security benefits under a federal tax debt levy can only be appealed to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Contact the Internal Revenue Service at 1-800-829-7650 to discuss any appeal rights.

Delinquent Non-Tax Debts, Like Student Loans

Under the federal Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996, the Treasury Department can order the withholding of your Social Security benefits to pay off non-tax related debts owed to federal agencies, such as federal student loans, federal home loans, and Small Business Administration (SBA) loans.

In the case of federal student loans, the government can withhold up to 15% of your monthly Social Security benefit, as long as the amount withheld does no reduce your benefit to less than $750 a month.

No matter how long ago you may have finished school, you remain responsible for paying off federal student loans. Under the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling the case of Lockhart v. U.S., no statute of limitations applies to Social Security benefit withholdings to pay off student loans.

According to the Treasury Department, the Social Security benefits of at least 156,000 Americans were garnished to pay off defaulted student loans in 2013 – more than three-times the 47,500 who had benefits garnished in 2006 – a year before the Great Recession began.

If your Social Security benefits are to be garnished to pay off non-tax debts, you will be notified by the Treasury Department – not the SSA. According to the SSA, “We have no control over this reduction of Social Security benefits, and there is no appeal available under the Social Security Act.

If you have questions in this situation, contact Treasury staff at 1-800-304-3107.”