Can You Garnish SS Benefits for Child Support and Alimony?

January 5, 2017 § 7 Comments

Conventional wisdom is what is generally accepted as the truth when no one has bothered to research the actual truth. Conventional wisdom has long dictated that you can’t garnish Social Security benefits to collect child support or alimony.

But here’s a direct quote from the Social Security Administration (SSA) FAQ site on the point:

Can my Social Security benefits be garnished for alimony, child support or restitution?

We can withhold Social Security benefits to enforce your legal obligation to pay child support, alimony or restitution. State laws determine a valid garnishment order. By law, we garnish current and continuing monthly benefits. We do not make retroactive adjustments.

You cannot appeal to Social Security for implementing garnishment orders. If you disagree with the garnishment, contact an attorney or representative where the court issued the order.

From that, I take it that: (1) the garnishment is limited to current benefits, and lump-sum payments for past benefits are apparently not garnishable; (2) the garnishment is done according to state law, and is subject to the federally-imposed limits (which are high for child support, as pointed out below); and (3) if you think the garnishment order is wrong procedurally or substantively, your remedy is in the state court that issued it, and Social Security will decline to help you with that.

Side note: I wonder whether a lump-sum benefit expected but not yet received is subject to garnishment? In other words, SSA will not reach back and retroactively “adjust” a lump-sum benefit already paid, which is understandable; but if that lump-sum payment is in process but has not yet been paid, may it, too, be garnished?

It’s not stated above, but I understand that neither alimony nor child support may be taken from an SSI check.

Federal law limits garnishment in most cases to 25% of disposable income. When it comes to child support, though, garnishment may be as much as 50-60%. A previous post discussing child-support garnishment is at this link.

In a recent case in another district, the ex-husband did not appear for his divorce hearing, and was ordered by the chancellor in the divorce judgment to pay $200 a month alimony to his ex. The wife’s attorney had the court enter an “Order for Withholding” contemporaneously with the judgment. The withholding order specifically directed that the alimony be withheld from the husband’s SS benefits. It also directed withholding by “any payer of the obligor.” A certified copy of the order was sent to SSA.

Two weeks later SSA sent a letter to the attorney documenting that the amount directed was to be withheld from the husband’s SS benefits, effective in the following month. Although the SSA did agree to withhold the amount directed by the court, it did point out that the amount withheld is limited by federal law. What that means to you is that the 25% limitation for alimony, and 50-60% limitation for child support, may mean a smaller recovery for you in relatively big-dollar cases.

Note that the lawyer in this case prepared and presented a withholding order rather than a formal writ of garnishment, and SSA honored it. That tells me that if you obtain a court-ordered withholding order in any form SSA will honor it. It’s up to the obligor to complain to the state court about the procedure that was used.

Oh, and for those of you who haven’t dealt with SSA recently, their response time in my experience is lightning-fast in all but disability cases, and accurate. It’s a far cry from even 10 years ago when SSA took forever to respond with inaccurate and confusing information that would take months to correct. Your experience may vary.

Here is yet another avenue available to you to make your clients happy. Remember: when you save or make your clients money, they love you; when you cost them money, they hate you. Whether they love or hate you, they will tell all their friends and relatives about it. You get to decide what kind of news they spread around about you.

Thanks to Attorney Christopher Tabb of Brandon for the factual information; the editorial comments are my own

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§ 7 Responses to Can You Garnish SS Benefits for Child Support and Alimony?

  • Chuck Davis says:

    What is the reference which establishes the 25% garnishment limit on Social Security retirement payments for alimony? I have not seen that quoted anywhere. Thank you.

    • Larry says:

      I am not certain after all this time. You might want to ask Christopher Tabb in Brandon. He has more experience with this issue.

  • jaofoxford says:

    I think it’s important for people to realize the distinction between Social Security Disability payments (SSD), and Supplemental Security Income payments (SSI). SSD may be garnished, but SSI cannot be garnished. As a former DHS child support attorney, clients were often confused by this.

  • Sheila Rivers says:

    From experience, a lump sum can be garnished. My ex-husband owed more than $25,000 in child support arrearage. He filed for and was approved for Social Security Disability. I received a lump sum payment of over $8000 (much to my surprise). I also receive monthly payments until it is paid in full.
    My children were ages 23 and 27 at the time. I had my child support going through DHS and did not forgive the arrearage when the children were emancipated. Patience does pay!

    • Larry says:

      Thank you for this comment. I generally limit comments to lawyers and judges, but your experience might help someone in another case.

  • David Love says:

    While 60% may seem high, it’s not the cap in every situation. The Federal Consumer Credit Protection Act allows for the withholding of child support up to 65% if the noncustodial parent is more than 12 weeks delinquent in the payment of support and is not supporting a second family (spouse or dependent child(ren).

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