You have options that can help you safeguard your money from creditors seeking to freeze or garnish your bank account, but some may be more reliable than others. Bank accounts solely for government benefits and accounts opened in states that limit garnishment are important options to remember.
If a creditor or debt collector has sued you and a court has ruled against you, the plaintiff may be able to garnish your wages or bank account — both a savings or checking account. If you want to create a strategy to shield your funds from garnishment, this article shows you how to open a bank account inaccessible to creditors and offers some tips on understanding wage garnishment.
Bank accounts that can’t be garnished help protect your personal finances if you fear a court might order you to pay a creditor. A garnishment order may not apply to some kinds of accounts, depending on factors that may include the source of the money deposited there, how it’s deposited and where the account is located.
Federal law ensures that creditors cannot touch certain federal benefits, such as Social Security funds and veterans’ benefits. If you’re receiving these benefits, they would not be subject to garnishment. If you qualify but haven’t applied for these benefits and you think you may be subject to garnishment, be sure to have these benefits directly deposited into your account to protect against garnishments.
For these funds to be protected from garnishment, they must be made by direct deposit into a bank account — not by check — so they can be traced to the exempt sources. Otherwise they will no longer be protected against garnishment. Only two months of these benefits, with some caveats, can be protected, so any amount you’ve accumulated above two months’ worth of benefits is not protected. However, if that extra money that is garnished is exempt from garnishment under federal or state law, you may be able to go to court to have your money released. To ensure you understand your rights under garnishment and what benefits may be subject to garnishment, you should seek the advice of an attorney.
In addition to the government benefits discussed above, the following can’t be garnished:
You may be wondering whether other kinds of accounts can be useful for shielding money from creditors, but in general, these options tend to be expensive and time-consuming and may be fraudulent.
Different states handle marital debt differently. In some common-law or separate property states, creditors cannot garnish a joint account unless a debt was taken jointly or benefitted both parties. So spouses with separate finances typically may not be responsible for each other’s debt.
However, when it comes to joint accounts in these states, a creditor may be able to garnish up to half the funds in the account even if you weren’t liable for the debt. On the other hand, other separate property states may not allow garnishment of the account if you’re not liable for the debt, unless you both benefited from the debt or it was incurred to gain joint property.
In many community property states, by contrast, you are jointly liable for your spouse’s debts, whether or not you signed off on them. That means creditors can garnish both joint and separate accounts to satisfy the debt. However, in some community property states, spouses share marital assets, but not their debts. In some community property states, creditors can’t garnish separate bank accounts as long as your spouse doesn’t contribute or withdrawal from it.
In either case, private debt collectors typically must obtain a court order to access your bank account in attempts to secure money owed on credit cards, auto loans, mortgages, personal loans, and other debts.
Offshore bank accounts are often mentioned as money shelters. While offshore accounts aren’t illegal, hiding money in them is. Using offshore accounts to avoid state or federal taxes is unlawful, and even money that isn’t subject to taxes has to be declared if it’s held offshore.
Offshore trusts may offer asset protection, but you risk the following disadvantages:
Rather than trying to avoid a creditor, consider meeting your debt head-on by taking one of the following steps:
Debt collectors and creditors can only garnish your wages once they obtain a court order called a garnishment order or writ of garnishment. The court order permits employers to withhold some of your earnings to cover the debt you owe. Federal benefits are typically exempt from garnishment unless they’re being used to pay child support, student loans, delinquent taxes or alimony.
These four states fully protect wages from garnishment:
Be aware: Creditors can try to get around state-imposed limits. For example, you may have a bank account in one of the four protected states, but if your employer has an office in another state, a creditor may try to circumvent that protection by seeking to garnish your wages in that state instead. Also, some banks in states that offer protections may require that you reside in that particular state.
While creditors may not be able to garnish your wages in these states, they can still attempt to garnish your bank account.
In addition to garnishing your wages, a creditor can also obtain a judgment to levy your bank account. This causes the bank to freeze your account and send the creditor what you owe them. You won’t be able to access your account until the debt is paid.
How long this process takes relies primarily on the state in which the case is filed and the court’s specific order. To best understand how the process works in your state and the timeline you’re facing before your wages are garnished, see the legal counsel of an attorney who specializes in collection and garnishment cases.
Not all of your wages will be garnished at once to pay off your debt — just a percentage.
Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) limits how much of a person’s earnings are subject to a creditor garnish. This law ensures that individuals whose money is garnished have enough left to meet living expenses. Under the CCPA, an ordinary garnishment can’t exceed one of two figures: 25% of an employee’s disposable earnings or earnings that are greater than 30 times the federal minimum wage.
With the federal minimum wage being $7.25, you wouldn’t be garnished for anything up to $217.50, or $7.25 times 30. Up to $290, above $217.50 the amount above may be garnished, and for disposable earnings higher than $290, a maximum of 25% of disposable earnings may be garnished.
A bank account levy is more severe than wage garnishment because the court allows a creditor to freeze the money in your account. Wage garnishment, by contrast, is limited to a percentage of your disposable income. As a result, a creditor may prefer to use a bank levy to recoup as much of a debt as quickly as possible.
You can avoid creditor garnishes and bank levies by getting your finances in order. Adopting strategies to pay off credit card debt and other obligations faster can preserve your personal funds.
If you find yourself owing more than what you can afford, think about negotiating with your creditors to agree on a repayment plan or debt settlement before your creditors seek a court order. Failing to pay your debts can impact your credit report and damage your credit score as well. Following the tips in this article to pay back debts rather than avoiding them, may benefit you in the long run.
Disclaimer: Everyone’s situation is different. If you have concerns about wage garnishment, consult a lawyer.
Ana Gonzalez-Ribeiro, MBA, AFC® is an Accredited Financial Counselor® and a Bilingual Personal Finance Writer and Educator dedicated to helping populations that need financial literacy and counseling. Her informative articles have been published in various news outlets and websites including Huffington Post, Fidelity, Fox Business News, MSN and Yahoo Finance. She also founded the personal financial and motivational site www.AcetheJourney.com and translated into Spanish the book, Financial Advice for Blue Collar America by Kathryn B. Hauer, CFP. Ana teaches Spanish or English personal finance courses on behalf of the W!SE (Working In Support of Education) program has taught workshops for nonprofits in NYC.
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