Safer than the Mattress? Protecting Social Security Benefits from Bank Freezes and Garnishments
Suffolk University Law School; Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy
November 14, 2008
St. John's Law Review, Vol. 83, Issue 4, 2009
This Article analyzes the tensions between the anti-assignment provision of the Social Security Act-which exempts benefits from garnishment by creditors seeking payment for outstanding debts-and state-law garnishment procedures. Although federal law explicitly prohibits the garnishment of Social Security and other federal benefits, recipients routinely discover that these funds, which they believed were safely deposited in a bank account, have been temporarily frozen or, even worse, permanently garnished at the behest of a judgment creditor. The problem has been exacerbated in recent years as the collection industry has grown and changes in state laws have made it easier for creditors to garnish bank accounts. At the same time, increasing numbers of benefit recipients are receiving direct electronic deposits, further complicating matters.
Banks, seeking to avoid liability under state law, typically comply with garnishment orders and automatically freeze accounts. This often causes substantial hardship for low-income benefit recipients, who can be left for weeks without access to funds they rely upon for subsistence. A few states have attempted to remedy the problem through legislative and administrative solutions, with mixed success. Congress has also recently held hearings on the issue and federal agencies have proposed a possible response. This Article analyzes these efforts and discusses their limitations before urging a federal legislative response in the form of a five-part policy proposal.
The article expands upon an unpublished working paper written with support from the National Academy of Social Insurance and the Rockefeller Foundation through their Strengthening Social Security for Vulnerable Groups project.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 66
Keywords: Social Security, exempt benefits, debt collection, creditor-debtor issues, banking, direct deposit
Date posted: February 6, 2009 ; Last revised: June 11, 2012