When you get your stimulus check and how much you get depend on several factors.
The stimulus checks landing in millions of Americans’ bank accounts are meant to help people cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But they could also be helping debt collectors, thanks to a loophole in the $2 trillion stimulus package.
The problem, legal advocates say, is that the stimulus checks aren’t explicitly off-limits to debt collectors or creditors, unlike other government payments such as Social Security and disability benefits. That oversight means that debt collectors can garnish bank accounts to seize the stimulus payments, according to Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center.
Bank account garnishment happens when creditors are legally permitted to remove money from your bank account to cover an unpaid debt. In some states, bank accounts are frozen when they’re garnished, a devastating development for many consumers. And that makes the issue doubly problematic at the moment, given that millions of Americans are struggling with lost jobs and income. Not only could they lose all or part of their stimulus checks, but they could also get locked out of their bank accounts.
This could ding your check: Behind on child support? If so, you won’t get a stimulus check
“We are hearing a lot of stories for people whose bank accounts are frozen” because of garnishment, Saunders says.
The loophole has prompted 25 state attorneys general and Hawaii’s Office of Consumer Protection to ask Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to ensure that debt collectors and creditors can’t take Americans’ stimulus checks.
“During this public health and economic crisis, the States do not believe that the billions of dollars appropriated by Congress to help keep hard-working Americans afloat should be subject to garnishment,” they said in a letter sent to Mnuchin on Monday.
A Treasury official reportedly told banking officials last week that the law doesn’t prohibit banks from taking the stimulus payments for delinquent loans or past-due fees, according to The American Prospect.
A Treasury spokeswoman said the department is looking into the issue.
Treasury has said that about 80 million Americans will receive their checks by the end of the week via direct deposit. The amount depends on your marital status, income and number of children under 17. For instance, individuals earning $75,000 or less will receive $1,200, while joint filers earning $150,000 or less will receive $2,400.
People who earn above that will receive incrementally smaller checks until they phase out completely for single taxpayers with incomes over $99,000 and $198,000 for joint filers with no children. Families with children under 17 will receive $500 per child.
That can add up to a sizeable chunk of money, with some families of four receiving as much as $3,400.
Blocking debt collectors from grabbing that money has a simple fix, according to the attorneys general. Treasury could designate the stimulus checks as exempt from garnishments, including redefining the stimulus checks as “benefit payments” that would be off-limits to debt collectors.
Not everyone is waiting for Treasury to act. Already, Massachusetts and Ohio have declared that their residents’ stimulus checks can’t be touched by debt collectors.
“Significant numbers of people are suddenly finding themselves underemployed or unemployed and have lost wages,” notes Lisa Stifler, director of state policy at the Center for Responsible Lending. The stimulus checks are “going to pay things like food and other necessities, so if creditors can seize that for old debts, that completely negates the purpose of these needed payments.”
Consumers who are concerned their accounts might get garnished could request a paper check through the IRS.gov’s “Get My Payment” service, Saunders noted. They can then cash their check rather than depositing it.
Saunders noted that others who have already received a direct deposit and are concerned about garnishment could withdraw the money from their accounts, although visiting an ATM or bank could pose health risks during the pandemic, she noted.
“People are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she said.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2020/04/15/coronavirus-stimulus-checks-debt-collectors-can-garnish-money/5136596002/