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Archive for the ‘garnish bank account’ tag

Protecting Your Pandemic Relief Payment from Your Bank

May 4th, 2020 at 7:00 am

If you owe money to the bank or credit union where your $1,200 relief payment is being deposited, can it take that money to pay itself first?

 

Our last blog post was about whether your creditors can seize the $1,200 (or so) pandemic relief payments. Today’s is about one specific class of creditors: your own bank or credit union. What if you have a debt to the financial institution where your relief money is being direct-deposited? Can it pay itself to cover your debt instead of paying you? Would you only get whatever’s left, if any?

The Banker’s Powerful Right of Setoff

To force payment from your bank account, most creditors must sue and get a judgment against you first. So the big focus in last week’s blog post was on determining whether you had a judgment against you, and a resulting garnishment order on the bank account where your coronavirus relief payment was arriving. If no judgment, than no garnishment, and the relief payment is safe from creditors.

But the bank where you have your account is different. (All references to banks in this blog post also include credit unions and other financial institutions.) Banks have a right of setoff.

The basic idea is that money you have in a checking or savings account is money the bank owes you. It can set off its debt to you against your debt to it. It zeros out its debt to you (by taking the money in your account) and lowers your debt to it by the same amount. The practical effect is that money comes out of your checking/savings account to pay off or pay towards your debt.

This right is put into likely every contract you enter into with your bank governing your deposit accounts. For example, here’s the pertinent language from a recent 64-page Wells Fargo Bank Deposit Account Agreement:

[W]e have the right to apply funds in your accounts to any debt you owe us. This is known as setoff. When we setoff a debt you owe us, we reduce the funds in your accounts by the amount of the debt. We are not required to give you any prior notice to exercise our right of setoff.

A debt includes any amount you owe individually or together with someone else both now or in the future. It includes any overdrafts and our fees. We may setoff for any debt you owe us that is due or past due as allowed by the laws governing your account. If your account is a joint account, we may setoff funds in it to pay the debt of any joint owner.

So, in general a bank can take the relief money as it arrives into your account. It uses the money to pay any debt you owe the bank. That debt may be on the account itself—such as an overdraft fee—or any other debt you owe it.

Special Credit Card Law

This right of setoff usually does not apply to unsecured consumer credit card debts. Under Federal law

A card issuer may not take any action to offset a cardholder’s indebtedness arising in connection with a consumer credit transaction under the relevant credit card plan against funds of the cardholder held on deposit with the card issuer…   .

15 U.S.C. Section 1666h(a). For more details see the related regulations at 12 C.F.R. § 1026.12(d).

So, if you owe your bank on a credit card, it can’t take your relief payment to pay that debt. (This assumes the bank hasn’t sued you and gotten a judgment and garnishment on that account.)

Special Closed Account Rule

What if you had an account at a bank but either you’ve closed it or the bank has done so? In particular, what if the relief payment is slated to come to that closed account? That’s what would happen if you had the IRS send last year’s tax refund to that account (while still open).

In this situation the bank can’t take your relief payment to pay a debt you owe to the bank. Its right to setoff is cut off when either you or the bank close the account. 31 C.F.R. § 210.4(c)(3).

This means that the bank has to return the payment to the IRS (actually the U.S. Treasury). Then you should receive the payment by paper check through the mail. How long before you’d receive that check? The lower your income the quicker the IRS is mailing the paper checks. Here’s a recent article listing the mailing dates based on your adjusted gross income.

Therefore, in some circumstances it may make sense to close your account to prevent a setoff. The delay in receiving the payment may be worth avoiding losing some or all of it through a setoff. Then of course when you receive the check, cash or deposit it at a different financial institution.

If this is your situation you’d likely benefit from talking with a bankruptcy lawyer about this, and about your overall financial options.

Important Exception to the Closed Account Rule

Be careful about one important twist. If you believe your bank closed your account because of unpaid fees, it may not actually be closed. The bank may have charged off the account with a negative balance but not legally closed that account. Then this closed-account exception would not apply. The bank could pay the unpaid fees with your relief payment when it hits your account. It could also set off any other debts you may owe to the bank (other than credit cards). Again, this is a situation to discuss with a lawyer.

Local Pandemic Collection Protections May Apply

Last week we gave a list of state emergency orders preventing seizure of the relief payments to pay ordinary creditors. Most of these addressed creditor garnishment of bank accounts. Most did not directly address the separate question of setoffs by the banks themselves. However, some of those orders did so, including:

 This situation is constantly changing so it’s worth seeing whether your state has created similar setoff protections.

Some Banks’ Voluntary Policies

Some individual banks have announced that they’re not exercising their setoff rights specifically regarding relief payments. These include JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Bank of America, USAA, and Wells Fargo, and likely others.

Because these are voluntary, and temporary, the exact details will vary at each bank, and may change. They may even vary customer by customer. So be careful, and find out whatever details you can before relying on these voluntary policies.

 

Protecting Your Pandemic Relief Payment from Creditors

April 27th, 2020 at 7:00 am

Your $1,200 or so coronavirus relief payment is subject to seizure by your creditors, if they have a garnishment order on your bank account.  

 

Our blog post four weeks ago was about the $1,200 pandemic relief payments going out to most U.S. adults. The CARES Act explicitly protected these payments from seizure for certain governmental debts. Generally, the payments can’t be reduced or taken to pay past-due federal taxes and student loans. They can be for past-due child support obligations.

But the CARES Act made no mention of protection from debts owed to non-governmental creditors. So the relief payments are generally subject to possible seizure by your creditors. Today we address this concern about private creditors’ access to these payments.

There are two classes of creditors at play:

1)      Setoffs by your own bank or credit union for a debt you owe to it

2)      Garnishment by other creditors which have a judgment against you

Next week we address setoffs by for fees or other debts owed to your own financial institution. Today is about protecting your relief payment from other creditors.

Judgments and Garnishment Orders

Generally a non-governmental creditor can’t take money from your bank account without a court’s garnishment order. And to get a garnishment order a creditor virtually always must first sue you and get a judgment. (This assumes that the creditor isn’t a governmental agency or the bank/credit union itself.) If a creditor has an active garnishment order on your bank/credit union account, your relief payment would arrive there and go to pay the debt instead of giving you the financial relief you need.

Do You have a Garnishment Order on Your Bank/Credit Union Account?

This question is not necessarily so easy to answer, for a number of reasons.

First, although most of the time you’d know that you received lawsuit papers, not necessarily. You may have not noticed it in the mail.  It may not have looked much different from other collections paperwork. If you’ve moved a lot, it’s possible you didn’t even get the lawsuit papers.

Second, you may not know that the lawsuit resulted in a judgment. If you didn’t respond within a very short time to the lawsuit papers, you probably lost the lawsuit by default. That almost always immediately turns into a judgment—a court decision that you owe the debt. The judgment gives the creditor power to—among other things—garnish your bank account.  

Third, you may not know about the garnishment order, or the pertinent details about it. For example, you may think it only applies to your paycheck, not your bank account. Or the bank garnishment order may have happened a while ago and you don’t realize that it’s still active.   

Fourth, the laws about lawsuits, judgments, and garnishments are detailed, complicated, and different in every state. And they change (sometimes in a good way, as we show below.)  So what you may have heard in one situation may not apply at all to you regarding these relief payments.

Finding Out If You Have a Bank Garnishment Order

Some common sense questions you should ask yourself. Have you:

  • ever received lawsuit papers and then did not fully resolve the debt?
  • had any kind of creditor garnishment or seizure, even if unrelated to your bank/credit union account?
  • had anything repossessed, especially a vehicle, where you may still owe a balance?
  • gone through a real estate foreclosure in which you may still owe a money to junior mortgage or other lienholder?
  • moved from another state and thought you left unresolved debts behind?

In these and similar situations you may have a judgment against you and a garnishment on your bank/credit union account. So your relief money would likely go to pay the judgment before you’d get any of it.

Is there any more direct way of finding out if there’s a garnishment order? Yes, you could contact your bank/credit union and ask. The problem is that in the midst of the pandemic you may well have trouble getting anyone to answer. More to the point, you’d likely have trouble getting through to somebody who could accurately and reliably answer this question.

A debtors’ rights or bankruptcy lawyer could help. He or she likely knows the right people to call at your financial institution, including that institution’s lawyers.

 What To Do If You Do Have a Garnishment Order

First, every state has exemptions that you may be able to claim to protect the relief money from garnishment. Each state has different procedures for claiming those exemptions. An extra challenge during the pandemic is getting access the courts to assert your exemption rights. Many courts are physically closed, you may be subject to a stay-at-home order, and contacting a lawyer may be harder. But if you don’t want to lose your relief money, you’ll likely need to assert your exemption protections.

Second, you may want to consider some other tactical steps:

  • If a garnishment order has expired and the creditor needs to renew it, you may have time to take the money out of the account immediately after it arrives.
  • Has the IRS has not yet direct-deposited your payment? Then you may be able to redirect it to an account at a different (non-garnished) financial institution. Go to the Get My Payment webpage to provide new bank account routing information (if it’s not too late).
  • Are you currently waiting to receive the relief payment in paper checks? Consider NOT providing the IRS direct deposit information even though that may delay the payment. (Here’s an article with the dates that the IRS is mailing out paper checks, based on income.)

Third, a number of states are issuing orders to prevent garnishments of bank accounts:

California Governor’s Executive Order N-57-20District of Columbia Act 23-286

Illinois Governor’s Executive Order 2020-25

• Indiana Supreme Court Order in case nos. 20S-MS-258 and 20S-CB-123

Massachusetts emergency regulation 940 C.M.R. 35.00

Nebraska Attorney General Warning

• New York Attorney General Guidance on CARES Act Payments

• Oregon Governor’s Executive Order 20-18

• Texas Supreme Court Tenth Emergency Order Regarding the Covid-19 State of Disaster

Virginia Supreme Court Order Extending Declaration of Judicial Emergency

• Washington State Governor’s Proclamation 20-49 Garnishments and Accrual of Interest

This list is expanding all the time. So if your state isn’t listed here it may have acted after this writing (4/27/20).

This IS Complicated

Garnishment law is detailed and not at all straightforward. And that was before all the legal and serious practical complications caused by the pandemic. So if at all possible, get through to a debtor’s rights or bankruptcy lawyer. We have spent our professional lives helping people deal with garnishments and protect their assets from creditors. This is just another twist on what we do all day every day.

 

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210-342-3400

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