Social Security Recipients in Danger of Garnishment by Collectors

Social Security recipients face a risk not only from their own debt troubles but also those of  the people that take care of them. If you receive Social Security or take care of someone who does, you should know about this.

 

Secret Danger of Garnishment to Social Security Recipients and Others

 

As I have pointed out in my video about garnishing Social Security, Social Security benefits are exempt from most forms of garnishment – the notable exception to that rule is that they may be garnished by certain government entities.

Although Social Security benefits are exempt from most forms of garnishment, I warned that they could still be attached and taken if they are in a bank account that the creditor happens to find. When bank accounts are garnished, they are held by the bank for a time to allow you to fight the garnishment. As a practical matter, you may be unable to fight the garnishment, and thus if you are having trouble paying your bills and have paid for them with an account that holds Social Security benefits, it makes very good sense to switch those benefits to another bank (not just bank account in the same bank) – because once there is a judgment against you the debt collector is bound to attempt to seize any assets in a bank they have on file for you. I realize this can be difficult or disruptive, but if you have paid an original creditor or debt collector out of an account, you must expect that account to be garnished – seized and taken away from you – if the debt collector manages to get a judgment.

If it is seized, you may or may not be able to get the money back, but there will certainly be a delay, and all the money in the account, up to the amount of the judgment, will be held by the bank and unavailable to you.

There is another danger to Social Security recipients.

Social Security recipients are often elderly or disabled, needless to say, and many of these allow other people to do shopping for them or to hold their assets in one way or another to use for their benefits. This money is held in trust and should not be available to debt collectors who are after the person who is holding the money.

Here is an example that might make it clearer. If Mary (a 70 year old woman suffering from Altzheimer’s) is being taken care of by her son Tom, Mary and Tom will frequently find it helpful to allow Tom to use Mary’s account to pay her bills. If Mary’s account contains only Social Security benefits, it should be beyond the reach of any creditor, and because the money is not Tom’s at all, it should not be reachable by Tom’s creditors in any event.

However, sometimes debt collectors will discover that Tom is paying bills using Mary’s account. If his name is on the account, or if he is permitted to write checks upon it, the debt collectors may attempt to garnish the account.

This is not as “evil” as it may first appear. From the debt collector’s point of view, how do they know what bills Tom is paying with the account? People have often tried to hide assets from debt collectors by using other people’s accounts, and the law is designed to let go after the debtor’s money regardless of whose name it is.

On the other hand, the impact of Mary’s account being seized for Tom’s debt can be devastating. Because once again the money will be held out of use for a period of time that allows the parties to prove whose money it is and whether it can be seized. During that time, the elderly person cannot pay her bills, may be evicted, or face other, life-threatening and disrupting events.

Get Legal Advice

Therefore, if you have a judgment against you on a debt you should seek the advice of a lawyer specializing in debt collection before allowing the account to be linked to you in any way. In my opinion, the risk extends beyond just having your name on the account. If you sign checks on behalf of someone else and there is a judgment against you, you may be putting this person at risk. Get legal advice and protect them and you.

Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is the centerpiece of legal protections for debtors against debt collectors. The law was passed in its essential form in 1977, and its goal was to protect debtors against the abuses of debt collectors. This article discusses what makes this law great, and some of its limitations.

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The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)  was enacted to put an end to some of the worst practices of the debt collection industry. It’s been a very good law, but the debt collectors are still doing many of the things the law was designed to present. You may be able to sue them or prevent them from suing you.

The Debt Collection Industry

Before the act, the debt collection industry was routinely engaging in the most abusive sorts of behavior imaginable, from calling debtors at all hours of the day or night and subjecting them to streams of cursing and name-calling, to discussing their debt with children, neighbors, and employers. Debt collectors frequently misrepresented themselves as attorneys and often threatened legal action which they were powerless to initiate. And they often attempted to, and did, collect debts that either never existed or were long unenforceable because of statutes of limitation or bankruptcy.
Whatever the staid spokespeople of the debt collection industry may say, this is the background of their industry. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. Section 1692, et seq., was enacted to put a stop to these extreme behaviors in 1977. Because the people intended to be protected by the act are underrepresented by lawyers, and because of the explosion of debt litigation over the past decade, many of the old abuses still continue, and as people increasingly defend themselves from the debt collectors, they develop new tricks all the time.

The FDCPA: A Pretty Good Law

Nevertheless, the FDCPA is in many ways a model piece of legislation. What makes the law so powerful is that, in addition to making certain enumerated acts illegal, the Act also more generally makes acts that are “oppressive,” “false or misleading representations,” or “unfair practices” illegal. This means that, whereas in most laws, the would-be wrongdoer is free to craft his actions around the specific language of the law and find “loopholes,” under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, at least, the consumer may argue that these actions are still unfair or oppressive. The Supreme Court has ruled that an “unfair” act can be shown by demonstrating that it is “at least within the penumbra” of some common law, statutory “or other established concept” of unfairness.

That’s pretty broad. The price for this flexibility, however, is that the remedies—what you get if you prove the case—are less powerful. And this may be why the practices are still occurring today.

As mentioned above, there are specific actions enumerated in the FDCPA, and these include most notably, suing on expired debts, filing suit in distant jurisdictions, publishing certain types of information regarding the debtor, calling outside of specified hours. And the list goes on. If the debt collector is acting in some highly offensive way, chances are he’s within the specific provisions of the Act. These can be found at 15 U.S.C. 1692c, d, e and f. You can find the specifics by Googling the Act or provision and determining whether the specific action you’re concerned about is within one of these provisions.