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Can SSDI or SSI Be Garnished if You Owe Debt?

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Photo of Derek Silva — Atticus Author
Derek Silva
Data Journalist and Content Lead
May 3, 2023  ·  4 min read
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If you owe back taxes, have missed child support, haven’t made your federal student loan payments, or have other types of federal debt, the IRS may be able to garnish or levy some of your payments or property as “payment” for what you owe. Garnishment is when a creditor keeps part of a check or payment to pay your debts. A levy is a legal seizure of your property to satisfy a tax debt.

When it comes to disability benefits, you don’t have to worry about garnishment from private lenders. But the IRS can garnish your Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). This means you’ll receive lower monthly disability benefits. And if you meet the SSDI or SSI qualifications, it’s also harder to find a lawyer who’ll help with your case.

Can SSDI be garnished?

Yes, the federal government can garnish your current and continuing SSDI checks, including your first back pay check. If you receive Social Security disability but you owe federal debt, the IRS can take up to 15% of your payments to help settle your debts.

As an example, the average SSDI payment is $1,358 per month and 15% of that amount is about $204, which would leave you with only $1,154 per month.

If you’re at retirement age, keep in mind that garnishment applies to Social Security retirement benefits, too. SSDI payments automatically convert to retirement benefits when you reach your full retirement age. Your Medicare coverage isn’t affected if the IRS garnishes your pay.

Situations when SSDI can be garnished

The federal government (through the IRS) is legally permitted to garnish your SSDI payments if you owe one of these types of debt:

In these cases, the IRS is able to take up to 15% of each check you receive as a way of paying off your debt. However, the IRS is unlikely to garnish your pay unless multiple attempts have already been made to get you to either pay your bill or set up a payment plan.

If you disagree with your garnishment, the SSA says you should contact an attorney or representative where the court issued the order. Do not contact Social Security about the garnishment because unfortunately they can’t help you.

Can SSDI back pay be garnished?

The IRS can garnish your SSDI back pay just like your monthly SSDI payments, but it won’t garnish money you’ve already received. Since most people only receive back pay once — when they first get approved for SSDI — the IRS would need to have already warned you they’re going to garnish your pay before you receive your back pay check.

Can SSI be garnished?

No. Your monthly SSI checks or back pay cannot be garnished. They are intended to help meet the basic needs (like food and shelter) of low-income applicants and aren't considered income. SSDI can be garnished because it is considered income.

How to get help winning disability benefits

Your best chance at getting the disability benefits you need is to work with a lawyer. They can help you through the long application process and handle appeals for you. In the end, applicants are three times more likely to win their claim if they have a lawyer.

If you owe debt such as back taxes, however, it’s going to be harder to find a lawyer to take your case. A disability lawyer’s fee is only paid if you win your case, and they’re paid a percentage of your first check, which includes all of your back pay. If you get less back pay — for example, because the IRS garnishes your SSDI benefits — the lawyer will get paid less, too.

Depending how much you owe, not all lawyers will be willing to accept a lower fee. So make sure you tell any lawyer about your debt upfront.

To find a qualified lawyer who has experience winning disability cases, consider working with Atticus. We’re a law firm with a network of vetted attorneys who know exactly how to help you get the benefits you need. Get started by taking our 2-minute disability benefits quiz. Someone from our team can reach out to learn more and match you with a lawyer. (Getting matched is free and you never pay the lawyer unless you win benefits.)

See what benefits you qualify for instantly. Take our easy eligibility quiz.

Common questions about disability benefits and debt

Can you get disability if you owe back taxes?

In most cases, yes. You can qualify for SSDI if you owe back taxes (any tax bill that is past due), as long as you’ve paid Social Security taxes and meet the other requirements for benefits. However, keep in mind that the IRS can garnish your SSDI — take out a portion of each monthly check to fulfill your tax debt.

When can the IRS garnish SSDI?

There are five types of debt the IRS could garnish SSDI in order to pay: alimony, back taxes, child support, federal student loan payments, victims restitution.

Can SSDI be garnished for credit card debt?

SSDI benefits cannot be garnished if you owe credit card debt. Since SSDI is a federal program, SSDI payments are only eligible for garnishment for federal debts (like back taxes) — not debts from private lenders (like credit card debt, loans, or medical bills).

Can SSDI be garnished for child support?

Yes. If you owe child support, the IRS may garnish your SSDI checks to collect past due or current child support payments.

Can SSDI be garnished for alimony?

Yes. For people who owe alimony (spousal support after divorce or separation), SSDI payments are legally allowed to be garnished to meet alimony payments.

Will a disability lawyer represent you if you have debt?

Yes, some disability lawyers will still represent you if you owe debt. You’ll likely find, though, that it’s harder to get a lawyer if you owe certain kinds of debt. The IRS can garnish (or withhold a portion of) your SSDI to pay back taxes, child support, or alimony, meaning both you and your lawyer will get paid less.

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Photo of Derek Silva — Atticus Author

Derek Silva

Data Journalist and Content Lead

Derek is a writer and editor who has spent years covering disability benefits, taxes, and personal finances. He loves using data to tell stories, with his work being covered by Yahoo Finance, MSN, Business Insider, and CNBC, among others. Derek has previously worked for SmartAsset and Policygenius.
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