It's a rude awakening for a growing number of seniors: They file for Social Security, then discover that the federal government plans to take part of their benefit to pay off delinquent student loans, tax bills, child support or alimony.
This month the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released findings on the problem of rising student debt burdens among retirees—and how the government goes after delinquent borrowers by going after wages, tax refunds and Social Security checks.
Under federal law, benefits can be attached and seized to pay child support and alimony obligations, collection of overdue federal taxes and court-ordered restitution to victims of crimes. Benefits also can be attached for any federal non-tax debt, including student loans.
It seems the student loan crisis isn't just for young people. The GAO found that 706,000 of households headed by those aged 65 or older have outstanding student debts. That's just 3% of all households, but the debt they hold has ballooned from $2.8 billion in 2005 to about $18.2 billion last year. Some 27% of those loans are in default.
If you're among the 191,000 households that GAO estimates have defaulted, your Social Security benefits can be attached and seized.
"When that happens, the federal government pays off the creditor, and now it's a debt to the federal government," says Avram L. Sacks, an attorney who specializes in Social Security law. "So they can go after you for the loans—and now that students are reaching retirement age, long-forgotten debts are coming back to haunt them."
The amounts that can be seized are limited, and the maximum amounts vary. In the case of any federal non-tax debt, including student loan debt, the government can take up to 15% of your monthly Social Security check. That's a painful bite for low-income seniors living primarily on their benefits.
The law prohibits any attachment due to a federal non-tax debt that reduces a monthly benefit below $750. (Federal tax debt is not subject to this limitation.) Retirement and disability checks can be attached, but Supplemental Security Income—a program of benefits for low-income people administered by the Social Security Administration—is exempt.
In alimony or child support situations, garnishment is limited to the lesser of whatever maximums are set by states or the federal limit. The federal limits vary from 50% to 65% depending on how much the debt is in arrears and on whether the debtor is supporting a spouse or child. In victim restitution cases, the limit is 25% of the benefit.
Benefits can be deducted through an "administrative offset" against the amount the government sends you or through garnishment. In the case of garnishment, banks are required to protect the two most recent months of benefits that have been paid into your account, and the bank must notify you within five days that benefits have been attached.
Sacks advises people who have had benefits attached to establish stand-alone bank accounts for their Social Security deposits. "It's much more simple and safe, and makes it much easier to trace funds," he says.
Sacks says the government has been going after benefits more often because of changes in federal law and court rulings that have widened its powers. He urges people in their pre-retirement years to make every effort to pay off delinquent debts.
"It can be painful, but consider going to legal aid or finding a non-profit debt counselor who can help negotiate repayment. The worst thing is to ignore it."
The government can go after delinquent debt while you're working—but that requires a court judgment. " are a known asset over which the federal government has total control," says Sacks.
He adds that people sometimes are blindsided by garnishment for unpaid debts they had forgotten about. If you're not sure about a federal debt, contact the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Bureau of the Fiscal Service (800 304-3107), which serves as a clearinghouse for debts.
If the bureau shows a debt that you dispute, contact the agency that is owed. Do the same if your benefits already have been tapped. "Don't try to deal with the Social Security Administration," says Sacks. "They don't have direct responsibility for the attachment."
Finally, Sacks notes funds not in the bank can't be garnished. Most people don't hang on to Social Security benefits for long—they're used to meet living expenses. "I hate to urge people to keep money under the mattress, but money that's been sitting in a bank account for more than two months is exposed to attachment."