Social Security retirement exists to provide for people who paid into the system while they were working. To protect the income of recipients, the government exempts Social Security benefits from most claims on a person's assets. However, if you owe certain types of debt, such as alimony, your Social Security retirement benefits might be vulnerable.
Under Section 459 of the Social Security Act, Social Security benefits are subject to withholding, garnishment and other similar legal proceedings for spousal or child support debts. In cases involving a judgment for unpaid alimony, the act also permits garnishment of benefits for related court costs and penalties. This law applies to Social Security retirement benefits, Social Security disability insurance benefits, workers' compensation benefits and railroad retirement payments. It does not apply to veterans benefits or Supplemental Security Income.
If you owe back alimony, your former spouse can garnishee your Social Security retirement benefits by obtaining a judgment against you for the debt and a court order for garnishment. The court, a state agency or a representative of your former spouse will submit the order to the national Court Order Garnishment System (COGS), and you will receive a notice of garnishment within 15 days. After COGS has processed the order, it will begin deducting the specified amount from your Social Security retirement checks.
The amount that COGS will deduct from your retirement benefits depends on your state's laws and the amount of alimony you owe. The maximum amount you can lose is the lesser of your state's limit on alimony garnishments or the limits prescribed by the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA). The CCPA allows garnishment of up to 60 percent of your benefits if you aren't currently supporting another spouse or child and up to 50 percent of your benefits if you do support another spouse or child. If you are more than 12 weeks behind in your alimony payments, the government will allow garnishment of up to 65 percent of your benefits.
As long as you make your alimony payments on time, your former spouse cannot garnishee your Social Security retirement benefits, which are not subject to garnishment for most consumer debts. However, they may be garnished if you owe federal tax debt or if you failed to repay government-sponsored student loans.
Amanda McMullen is a freelancer who has been writing professionally since 2010. She holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and statistics and a second bachelor's degree in integrated mathematics education.