HELP SSA BENEFICIARIES
WITH CRIMINAL/TRAFFIC DEBT
Many Virginians – including people who receive benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) – have criminal or traffic court debt in Virginia state courts. Court debt can include fines, fees, restitution, interest, or other charges. Courts typically expect Virginians with court debt to make payments, but low-income SSA beneficiaries may be struggling with this debt, while keeping up with basic living expenses.
Federal law provides a powerful right for those low-income Virginian SSA beneficiaries. But most people (including judges, attorneys, and SSA beneficiaries themselves) don’t even know about it.
THE LAW AND WHY IT MATTERS
This law is the SSA anti-alienation law, which mandates that “none of the moneys paid or payable or rights existing under this subchapter shall be subject to execution, levy, attachment, garnishment, or other legal process, or to the operation of any bankruptcy or insolvency law.” 42 U.S.C. § 407(a).
Other legal process: means the way a court separates a person from their money. This prohibition means that courts can’t count SSA benefits toward a person’s income and cannot ask that people make any payments against court debt from those benefits, whether the court is trying to collect money or is setting up a payment plan.
For those Virginians whose sole source of income is SSA benefits, no payments should be expected toward their court debt (at least until they have other income).
WHAT SSA BENEFICIARIES WITH COURT DEBT CAN DO?
Affected Virginians, and their advocates, should raise this issue with courts where they owe court debt – it could reduce or even eliminate a debt causing financial stress, and it will acquaint the courts with the SSA anti-alienation requirement.
In most cases, SSA beneficiaries with court debt will either 1) have a payment plan with the court where they owe court debt (most typically overseen by the court clerk’s office), or 2) be interacting with a collection agent overseeing that debt (which could include the Virginia Department of Taxation, the local Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, a local treasurer, or a private agency). Beneficiaries should contact whomever is overseeing their court debt, and ask that their SSA benefits not be counted as income in determining their ability to pay. If they have no other source of income, beneficiaries should ask that installment payments be set at zero, until they have other income. The responding agency may direct the beneficiary to file a petition for relief in the court.
Legal Aid Justice Center is working on this issue, and may be able to provide an answer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (804) 643-1086.