Social Security can be a huge boon in retirement, so it’s important to make sure you are getting the most out of it and avoiding costly mistakes.
We’ve talked in the past about delaying benefits to boost your monthly income, and checking your Social Security benefit statements occasionally to ensure you’re getting what you are supposed to. We’ve even debunked some of the myths about the benefit program.
One way you might miss out on those valuable benefits — even temporarily — is by not keeping up with your finances. No one likes debt, and depending on how much trouble you are in, your benefits may be garnished to pay back what you owe.
Here’s what could happen if you don’t manage your debt in retirement, and some tactics you can take to ensure you get — and keep — everything you are owed.
Per USA Today:
When you might lose benefits
If you owe money to the IRS in the form of unpaid taxes, the agency can garnish up to 15% of your benefits and apply that money to your outstanding debt. Now that may not seem like a huge chunk of money, but if those benefits constitute your primary or sole source of retirement income, that loss can be catastrophic.
Furthermore, if you default on federal student loan payments, the government can come after your Social Security income as well. And while you wouldn’t think student debt would be a problem for most seniors, keep in mind that many older Americans borrow money on their children’s behalf, and then struggle to pay it back later in life, thereby putting their benefits at risk. And if you fail to make your federal loan payments, you risk losing up to 15% of your benefits.
Keep in mind that if you’re behind on student debt, your Social Security income can’t be garnished to the point where you’re left with less than $750 a month. But the rules are different with tax debt – the IRS can go after its money even if your benefits dip below $750.
But it’s not just government agencies you need to scorn to lose out on benefits. If you fail to make child support or alimony payments to a former spouse, you risk having a portion of your Social Security income garnished as well. The extent of that garnishment, however, will be dictated by the laws of the state you live in,
Don’t put your benefits at risk
Seniors who rely on Social Security to cover their basic living expenses can’t afford to lose a chunk of their benefits to garnishment. If that’s your situation, keep tabs on your outstanding obligations, and if you see that you’re likely to fall behind, reach out to the parties or agencies in question and explore your options for relief.
For example, the IRS will usually allow you to get on an installment plan if you can’t pay your entire tax bill outright. As long as you’re current on your payments under that plan, your benefits are safe from garnishment – even if you still have a chunk of tax debt outstanding.
Similarly, if you can’t make your student loan payments, reach out to your debt servicer and see what options you have available. Federal loan borrowers can apply for income-driven repayment plans, which might lower your monthly loan payments. It’s also possible to defer federal student loans for a period of time. If you can prove that you’re struggling financially, you may get the option to hit pause on your payments without risking your Social Security benefits.
The last thing you want to do is lose out on Social Security income you otherwise depend on heavily. Be aware of the circumstances that can lead to having your benefits garnished, and take steps to avoid them at all costs. Otherwise, you could end up digging yourself into a very deep hole.