Can Student Loan Debt Eat Up Your Social Security Benefits?

social security payments

Can Social Security payments be garnished if you default on student loans? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, as many retired borrowers found out the hard way.

More people than ever are losing out on Social Security payments due to federal student loan debt.

Read on to learn about the long-reaching effects of student loan default, and what you can do today to protect your future finances.

Can student loan debt threaten your Social Security payments?

If you default on federal student loans, the government can take extreme measures to get your money. The government can tell your employer to withhold your pay. The IRS can also scoop up your federal and state tax refund and put it toward unpaid loans.

If you’re nearing retirement, the government can garnish your Social Security benefits. This consequence has been affecting more and more borrowers over the years, including those with student loans over 20 years old. Many retired Americans rely entirely on Social Security payments. With garnished benefits, they may not have enough money each month to live.

The good news? There is a Social Security garnishment limit. The bad news? It currently falls below the poverty line.

What’s the Social Security garnishment limit?

With the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996, the government set a Social Security garnishment limit. It can’t take any more than 15 percent of your Social Security payments.

This limit doesn’t give people enough protection. The last time it was adjusted was in 1998; the cost of living has increased since then, and the poverty line has gone up. Today, the poverty threshold for one adult is $990 per month. However, the government can whittle your Social Security benefits down to $750. With these reduced Social Security payments, older Americans with no other revenue streams have to subsist off an income $240 below the national poverty line.

Another piece of bad news — most of the money carved from Social Security payments doesn’t even pay down the loan principal. Of the $1.1 billion garnished from benefits, about 71 percent went to fees and interest.

This reality is pretty bleak, especially considering how many Americans are carrying student loan debt these days.

How many Americans had their Social Security payments garnished?

According to a December 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO):

  • Around 114,000 borrowers aged 50 and older had their Social Security payments garnished in 2015.
  • The population of people aged 50 to 64 in this situation has increased by 407 percent since 2002.
  • The population of borrowers aged 65 and older facing Social Security garnishment has increased by 540 percent.

Student loan debt isn’t just a crisis for twenty-somethings; it affects people of all ages.

All of this is pretty scary news, but there are some rays of hope.

What can people do to save their Social Security payments?

When it comes to defaulting on student loans, people need to know their rights. For instance, older Americans on permanent disability may be eligible for a full discharge of their student loans. Borrowers with a long-term medical condition can also qualify for full Social Security payments.

Hopefully, the GAO’s report will convince the Department of Education to provide more information to borrowers about their rights and options. The GAO also encouraged the Department of Education to set a Social Security garnishment limit higher than the national poverty line.

What can you do to avoid student loan default?

Federal loans never go away, and the government has wide-reaching powers to collect. When you fail to make a student loan payment for 270 days, then your loan is considered to be in default. To get out of default, you need to catch up on payments.

You may need to enter a rehabilitation program with the Department of Education. With a rehab program, you should be able to set up an income-based plan with manageable payments.

Once you’ve made several on-time payments, you may qualify to consolidate your student loans. Student loan consolidation can simplify your monthly payments while saving you money.

For more on consolidating student loans, check out our complete guide. You can also browse the best consolidation lenders in the Student Loan Hero marketplace.

Student loans and Social Security payments: the bottom line

As we move into 2017, Americans owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. Of those 44 million borrowers, some are moving into retirement and hoping to rely on Social Security payments to live. Unfortunately, outdated policies set the Social Security garnishment limit below the poverty limit.

To protect yourself, you should do everything you can now to avoid student loan default. The choices you make today will help you in years to come.

If your financial situation feels impossible, check out this article to see whether you can discharge your student loans through bankruptcy. Whatever your age and situation, there are options to help you manage your student loans and get out from under the shadow of debt.

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