Can a Collector Garnish My SSI Check for Unpaid Medical Bills?

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Unpaid medical bills consistently rank as one of the leading causes of bankruptcy in the United States, according to Walecia Konrad of "The New York Times." A creditor may have warned you that it can sue you and seize your assets to pay your medical bills, but this is almost never possible in regards to your Social Security benefits.

Identification

In general, creditors cannot garnish Social Security benefits, because the government wants you to have at least some income to live off of and people on SSI usually have a limited income, according to online resource Lawyers.com. Only a federal agency can garnish a Social Security check. Thus, unless you owe money to Medicare, Medicaid, or other medical-related federal agency, a creditor probably cannot take your SSI check.

Considerations

Creditors can accidentally garnish your SSI benefits when you mix your benefits with non-exempt income, such as wages from a job. This is called "commingling" funds. Commingling funds does not change the status of your SSI benefits. However, it makes it harder to determine the eligibility of funds for exemption. You may have to estimate how much of your funds are from SSI unless you can prove where your deposit originated. In case a creditor disputes your estimate, you could face a lawsuit.

Paying Unpaid Medical Bills

If you have lingering unpaid medical bills and its get to the point that the collector received a judgment, try to work out a payment with the creditor. He might agree to settle the debt for less than the amount owed, or let you pay on an installment plan. If worst comes to worst, you could eliminate the debts through bankruptcy. The key is to communicate with the creditor as soon as you know you cannot pay the debt.

Tip

The bank must warn you when a creditor obtains a levy against your bank account. When it does, send proof of exempt SSI as soon as possible so the bank does not charge a levy in error. If a creditor already has taken your SSI, you may need a lawyer to recover those funds and punitive damages. Also, sign up for SSI by direct deposit. In 2011, banks must review an account for exempt federal benefits, but not if you deposit them by paper check.

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