When can the government garnish your Social Security?

It’s a rude awakening for a growing number of seniors: They file for Social Security, then discover that the federal government plans to take part of their benefit to pay off delinquent student loans, tax bills, child support or alimony.

The practice came under a spotlight this month when the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released findings on the problem of rising student debt burdens among retirees – and how the government goes after delinquent borrowers by going after wages, tax refunds and Social Security checks.

Under federal law, benefits can be attached and seized only under certain situations: to pay child support and alimony obligations, collection of overdue federal taxes and court-ordered restitution to victims of crimes. Benefits also can be attached for any federal non-tax debt, including student loans.

It seems the student loan crisis isn’t just for young people. The GAO found that 706,000 of households headed by those aged 65 or older still have outstanding student debts. That’s just 3 percent of all households, but the amount of debt they hold has ballooned from $2.8 billion in 2005 to about $18.2 billion last year. Some 27 percent of those loans are in default. If you’re among the 191,000 households that GAO estimates have defaulted on federally guaranteed student debt, your Social Security benefits can be attached and seized.

Learn more about circumstances where Social Security benefits can be garnished or attached in my column today at Reuters Money.