A federal rule recently issued strengthens the rights of retirees, veterans and disabled Oklahomans to keep certain federal benefits in their bank accounts and not worry that those funds will be garnished by creditors, according Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.
The new rule is proposed by the U.S. Treasury Department, and will take effect on May 1 but is still open for public comment. The rule will limit creditors’ ability to freeze and take funds from accounts that contain Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), VA and other federal benefits. These benefits, which are legally protected from court-issued garnishment orders, are critical to the survival of many recipients.
Legal Aid Litigation Director Mike Miller commended the treasury department, the Social Security Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs and other federal agencies involved in working to safeguard essential benefits. He said "Legal Aid often is contacted by Oklahomans who are retired, disabled or are veterans and who have no money for food, rent or medicine because of creditor-imposed garnishment freezes."
"Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), VA and similar benefits are intended to meet beneficiaries’ daily needs. Federal law makes these funds immune from seizure by creditors," said Miller. However, in actuality, creditors frequently obtain court garnishment orders so that banks then freeze bank accounts containing protected funds. The account holder then may be unable to access funds for daily expenses for weeks or months.
“Oftentimes, the paperwork and procedures needed to end an illegal freeze of bank accounts proves too daunting for the elderly or disabled person as well as veterans, so the bank ends up turning over the untouchable funds to a creditor. This new rule will give peace of mind to many elders, veterans, and disability benefit recipients.”
The new rule prohibits the practice of denying beneficiaries access to these essential funds in bank accounts. It requires all banks to determine whether an account contains protected funds. If an account contains protected funds, the bank is required to protect two months of benefit payments from garnishment or the balance on the day the bank reviews the garnishment, whichever is less.
For instance, a debtor receives $1,250 a month in Social Security. On the day the bank reviews the garnishment, the debtor has a $1,000 account balance. The protected amount would be $1,000, and nothing would be taken out of the account. In another case, on the day the bank reviews the garnishment, the account holder has a $3,000 balance. The debtor receives $1,250 a month in Social Security. The protected amount would be $2,500. Up to $500 could be garnished from this account but the bank must follow state laws regarding that garnishment, and the bank is permitted to charge a garnishment fee. Protection of more than two months of benefit payments requires additional court filings by the beneficiary.
In announcing the rule, the agencies stated that its framework could be expanded in future years to protect other federal payments such as military retirement.
Comments on the new rule may be filed by May 24, 2011, by going to www.regulations.gov and entering “3206-AM17” in the keyword field.
Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma is a not-for-profit law firm which provides free civillegal assistance to eligible low-income individuals and their families and to elderly persons in the areas of family, consumer, housing, health and employment. Legal Aid attorneys and staff work through a network of fully-staffed law offices and satellite offices, serving eligible clients in all 77 counties of Oklahoma.
The statewide toll-free number to call for legal assistance is 888-534-5243.
Funding for Legal Aid is from the Legal Services Corporation, the State of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Bar Foundation, 15 United Way or United Fund organizations and generous attorneys, law firms, foundations, businesses and individuals throughout the state contributing to the Campaign for Justice.