Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Debtor's lament - accounts frozen by garnishment

When an ordinary creditor garnishes a debtor's bank account, the bank responds by freezing the debtor's access to the funds until the garnishment process is complete. I suppose the bank will continue to accept deposits into the account, but withdrawals and automatic bill payments stop. The debtor's outstanding checks begin to bounce as they are presented to the bank for payment. This happens even if all of the debtor's cash in a deposit account are exempt from execution by law and are immune from seizure. Twentieth Century garnishment procedures require the debtor to affirmatively act to claim and prove the exemption and persuade a judge to release the garnishment, restraint, freeze or whatever they call it in your local jurisdiction. The process can easily take 30 days or more. From a debtor's point of view, it's like adding injury to insult. It is an very iffy proposition that every debtor has the wits and resources to take the steps necessary to protect his or her legal rights.

In the last few years the U.S. Treasury Department has developed regulations to mitigate this debtor problem, at least with respect to federal benefit payments that are immune from seizure by ordinary creditors.  Veteran benefit payments and Social Security benefits are prime examples. These federal benefits, among others, are practically impervious to the claims of ordinary creditors. The U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have said so, repeatedly. But, prior to the age of digital banking, who knew where money came from? 

With most federal benefit payments being made by direct deposit these days, the source of the deposits are digitally encoded and the financial institution 'knows' if funds in an account are exempt. The recently finalized Treasury regulations ( 31 C. F. R. 212) require banks and other financial institutions to make two months of exempt payments available to the debtor during the garnishment process while freezing any surplus funds.

This does not change the scope of the debtor's exemption. If the debtor has more than two months worth of exempt benefit payment on deposit, the debtor must still follow ordinary garnishment procedures to claim the full exemption. In the meantime, the debtor is not frozen out of exempt cash needed for day-to-day living expenses.

Will this new system work to perfection and without error? Probably not.

But, a word of caution to debtors. It is best to leave exempt federal benefit direct deposits in the same account into which they were originally deposited. If any direct deposited benefit funds are transferred by the debtor to a different account, as for example from a checking account to a savings account, the bank's ability to easily identify the exempt funds may be forfeited. Again, this does not change the availability of the exemption, but it may result in more of the debtor's funds being frozen as application is made to the court and the debtor proves the exemption.

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