The subject of whether your Social Security benefits can be garnished came up on a radio show a few weeks ago. Here’s a letter from a listener who also wonders if her Social Security benefits can be garnished and what can she do to prevent that from happening.

Question: On Sept. 6, 2009, I caught the end of a conversation you were having with a gentleman whose mother I believe was in debt. I thought I heard you mention to the gentlemen that he should move his mother’s Social Security benefit to another bank account to protect it from garnishment.

I currently write checks from my mother’s account because I am co-owner on that account. Would the Social Security Administration allow me to move her Social Security benefit that is currently direct deposited to an account under my name only to protect it from garnishment? My mother, who is very ill, is also in quite a lot of debt (credit cards and other miscellaneous creditors). She is on a fixed income (disability SSA and pension) and all her income goes to pay for her residence in an assisted living facility. It doesn’t cover the entire cost. I pay the remainder plus her other expenses (i.e. her prescriptions and other medical expenses).

I have nothing left after paying my own living expenses and her medical expenses to cover her debt. What are our options? Thank you for your assistance.

Answer:My understanding is that Social Security and government benefits are not supposed to be able to be garnished by your average run-of-the-mill creditors. The gentleman who called into the show said that Social Security was his mother’s only income. But banks have not put in the required safeguards to be sure that social security checks are not garnished which is why I suggested moving it to his account. It isn’t that the Social Security direct deposits can’t be tracked. It’s that I believe the bank cannot tap into someone else’s account to garnish their Social Security benefits if that is the only cash in that account.

Although it’s not widely known, the Federal Government can garnish Social Security benefits for a few specific reasons, according to the website:

• The Federal Government can garnish Social Security benefits to enforce child support and /or alimony obligations -Section 459 of the Act;

• The Internal Revenue Service can levy against Social Security benefits to collect unpaid Federal taxes -Section 6334(c) of the Internal Revenue Code;

• The Internal Revenue Service can collect taxes due by levying up to 15 percent of your monthly Social Security benefit until the debt is paid;

• The Internal Revenue Service allows Social Security beneficiaries to have a portion of their check withheld to satisfy a current year Federal income tax liability – Section 3402 (P) of the Internal Revenue Code; and

• Other Federal agencies can collect money from your Social Security benefits to pay a non-tax debt you owe to that Agency – Debt Collection Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-134).

If your mother has a huge amount of debt that she cannot pay off, but she is living on Social Security and disability, she should probably let the debt go into default. Your mother will not need credit and as long as you are in no way attached to these debts, there is little that can be done.

Is it the right thing to do? No. Ethically, your mother charged up these debts (for whatever reason) and should pay them off. But realistically, it sounds as though she can’t, and won’t be able to, and will end her life with what she has now.

A legal aid attorney may be able to guide you further.