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Can Federal Benefits Be Garnished?

Money & Debt

This article explains what garnishment is, which federal benefits are exempt from garnishment, exceptions to exemptions, and what to do if your protected property has been garnished.

Here, learn when federal benefits can be garnished, how to send an anti-garnishment letter to your bank, and what to do if your protected property has been garnished. 

Portions of this article were written by the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Revised by on February 19, 2023. 

What is garnishment?

If you have an unpaid debt, a creditor or a debt collector it hires may get a court order to try to take money from your bank account to pay the debt. The court order is called a garnishment. 

Can my federal benefits be garnished?

Many federal benefits are generally exempt from garnishment, except to pay delinquent taxes, alimony, child support, or student loans.  

Federal benefits that are generally exempt from garnishment (except to pay delinquent taxes, alimony, child support, or student loans) include: 

  • Social Security benefits 

  • Supplemental Security Income benefits 

  • Veterans benefits 

  • Federal student aid 

  • Military annuities and survivors’ benefits 

  • Benefits from the Office of Personnel Management 

  • Railroad retirement benefits 

  • Federal emergency disaster assistance 

A full list and more information about these exemptions can be found in Property That Can Be Protected from Judgment Creditors

Financial institutions that receive a garnishment order are required to determine the sum of protected federal benefits deposited to the account during a two-month period and to ensure that the account holder has access to an amount equal to that sum or to the current balance of the account, whichever is lower.  

What should I do if my bank account is frozen?

If you haven’t already done so, you should seek an attorney’s help right away. If your bank freezes your account, this prohibits anyone, including you, from getting money out of the account. If you wrote checks or authorized electronic payments that have not cleared yet, they may be returned unpaid. What’s more, your bank may charge you a fee for having insufficient funds (NSF) in your account. 

As soon as you find out there’s a freeze on your account, you should make arrangements to prevent outstanding checks from bouncing and prevent the imposition of NSF fees. You might want to contact the people you wrote checks to, for example, and explain that you are working with your bank to resolve the problem. 

You also should tell the bank that your account has funds that are exempt from garnishment under federal law and ask that the freeze be lifted immediately. In addition, you should ask that your bank waive or refund NSF fees resulting from the freeze. If the bank refuses to release your exempt funds from the freeze, you probably have to go to court. If the judge decides that your funds are exempt, the bank will be required to lift the freeze. 

How do I let my bank know that I only have protected money (such as Social Security and/or Veterans Benefits) in my bank account?

You can send an Anti-Garnishment Letter to your bank. 

You will need to: 

  • Fill in the name and address of your bank 

  • Fill in the account number of the bank account that only has exempt money in it 

  • Date and sign the letter 

  • Send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested 

  • Or, hand deliver it so that you can prove when the bank received your letter 

Be sure to keep a copy of the letter for your records. 

What can I do if my exempt property has been garnished?

Federal and state laws called “exemptions” protect some kinds of money and property from being taken to pay debt judgments. 

The Protected Property Claim Form is a form you can fill out and turn in to the court if you would like to get back exempt money or property that has been frozen or taken.  

See Exempt Property in Debt Collection: Forms and Instructions for instructions about how to complete the form, turn it in, and prepare for your hearing on exemptions. 

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