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Can Social Security benefits be garnished over card debt?

By Todd Ossenfort

The Credit Guy
'The Credit Guy,' columnist Todd Ossenfort
The Credit Guy, Todd Ossenfort, is a credit expert and answers readers' questions about credit, counseling and debt issues.

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Question for the expert

Dear Credit Guy,
I recently became unemployed but do have Social Security benefits to pay the necessities. Can the credit card company garnish my monthly benefits because I'm unable to pay? I've requested the credit card company to modify my payments or decrease the interest rate in the past, but to no avail. I rent, no car, no other assets. Outstanding credit card balance is $7,000. I would appreciate a response. -- R.D. Answer for the expert

Dear R.D.:
It is very unfortunate that you are among the many people who have recently lost their jobs. You do at least have some income with your Social Security benefits, which should provide you with some peace of mind that you are able to meet your essential expenses.

Let me also assure you regarding potential garnishment of Social Security benefits. As long as the account where your benefits are deposited only contains those funds and no other income source, your account cannot be garnished unless it is to satisfy a government debt such as income taxes owed or child support or alimony. If you have other funds in the account where your Social Security benefits are deposited, you might consider separating and moving those funds into a savings account or separate checking account to assure your benefits remain safe from garnishment.

Although your credit card debt is unsecured debt and the credit card company cannot garnish your Social Security benefits, you may still have options to pay what you owe and keep your credit history from getting any worse than it may already be. In a joint effort with the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies (AICCCA), the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) recently announced a new program with credit card issuers that allows many people who would otherwise not qualify to repay their debts in a Debt Management Program (DMP).

The "Call to Action" program gives credit counselors more options to qualify consumers with lower income levels for repayment plans that will allow them to pay what they owe on their credit card balances. To learn more and determine if repaying your debt through a DMP is the best option for you, contact a qualified credit counselor through AICCCA or NFCC.

Until you are able to find another job, you must create a spending plan to live on your Social Security benefits alone. To do that you will need to make the necessary adjustments to your spending habits to avoid going into the hole each month. It sounds from your question like you may be well on your way to accomplishing this goal. Keep in mind that "wants" will have to be forgone for "needs" until you can increase your income.

If you need help budgeting your decreased income, has helpful budget planning information that can get you moving in the right drection. 

Take care of your credit!

See related: Top credit card issuers back debt repayment relief program

Todd Ossenfort is the chief operating officer for Pioneer Credit Counseling in Rapid City, S.D. Pioneer Credit Counseling has been a member of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies since 1997.

The Credit Guy answers a question about a debt or credit issue from a reader each week. Send your question to The Credit Guy.

Published: May 4, 2009

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