Coronavirus

$1,400 Stimulus Checks Can Be Garnished for Unpaid Debts. Some States Are Working to Prevent That

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  • If you have unpaid private debts that are subject to a court order, your $1,400 stimulus check could be garnished.
  • The American Rescue Plan Act did not protect the one-time direct payments for people in those circumstances.
  • Some states have stepped in to enforce their own rules to make it so the money cannot be taken. Find out if your state is on the list.

New $1,400 stimulus checks are aimed at helping millions of Americans weather the financial difficulties from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet the legislation that authorized those payments has one big caveat: The funds could be garnished for overdue unpaid debts.

That goes for private debts, such as medical bills or credit card debts, that are subject to a court order.

The American Rescue Plan Act, which was passed through a process called budget reconciliation, did not protect the stimulus checks from garnishment.

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Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, have put forth a proposal to protect the stimulus payments from private debt collectors.

But efforts to advance that bill were shut down by Senate Republicans last month.

"Sen. Brown will continue to look for ways to ensure any federal payments go to American families and not to debt collectors," the lawmaker's office said.

In the meantime, some states have stepped up to protect the payments. The efforts are similar to those made last year, when the first $1,200 stimulus checks also were subject to garnishment. (The $600 stimulus checks that were approved by Congress in December were generally exempt.)

Here's a working list of states that have taken action to date.

Colorado

Previous stimulus checks were protected from garnishment by the Colorado legislature.

However, this does not apply to the new $1,400 stimulus checks.

"We are currently working on another bill to increase the general protections for garnishments which would help to protect new stimulus checks," said Lawrence Pacheco, director of communications at the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey issued guidance in March that made the $1,400 stimulus checks exempt from garnishment or seizure under state law.

"These stimulus payments must go directly to help struggling people and families pay for housing, food, utilities and other basic needs, and not into the hands of debt collectors," Healey said in a statement.

The guidance, however, does not apply to actions by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, including those related to past due child support.

Minnesota

In January, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, amended and extended an executive order that classifies the money as "government assistance based on need," which is still in effect.

The stimulus funds are exempt from collection for at least six months after they are received, according to the Minnesota Attorney General's office.

Nebraska

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson issued an announcement in March clarifying that the $1,400 stimulus checks may be exempt from garnishment, attachment or execution for some low-income individuals.

"Nebraska law exempts certain income and property from execution and attachment by creditors and debt collectors," the announcement states. "The purpose of these exemptions is to ensure individuals have enough income and property to provide for basic necessities like housing, food, and utilities."

New Jersey

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Democrat, announced in March that certain financial institutions in the state had agreed to protect the $1,400 checks from getting taken.

"We want residents who have received their federal stimulus funds to be able to put it to use as they deem necessary," Murphy said in a statement. "I am pleased that 50 banks and credit unions have signed on to our agreement to protect these federal payments being received by New Jerseyans from being garnished for past debts or overdrawn accounts." 

The protection lasts for at least 30 days once the funds are deposited in a consumer's account.

New York

New York Attorney General Letitia James issued guidance in March to prevent debt collectors from seizing the $1,400 payments.

"This official guidance makes clear that banks and debt collectors cannot freeze or seize stimulus funds that are intended for New Yorkers, especially those most in need during this time," James said, in a statement. "My office remains committed to protecting New Yorkers' rights, and ensuring that any institution that violates this guidance will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

In addition to garnishment, the guidance also applies to setoffs, whereby money in accounts is used to pay debts owed to banks.

However, the guidance does not apply to actions taken by New York State, such as efforts to collect past due child support.

Oregon

Oregon continues to protect stimulus checks from garnishment after the Oregon legislature passed a law in an emergency session, according to a spokeswoman for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

In addition, the Oregon Child Support program will not garnish stimulus checks from financial institutions, the spokeswoman said.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha recently issued guidance indicating the $1,400 stimulus checks are protected from garnishment or seizure by debt collectors.

"These payments are a lifeline for so many Rhode Island families who have been devastated by the pandemic," Neronha said in a statement. "They belong to the recipients and are not fair game for debt collectors."

Moreover, the attorney general's office will take action to enforce the law if a creditor attempts to seize a stimulus payment.

Virginia

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring last week announced an amendment to a law to protect the $1,400 stimulus checks from debt collectors.

The law was initially passed last year to protect the $1,200 CARES Act payments from garnishment.

The amendment "ensures that Virginians are able to keep the entirety of their federal stimulus payments, protecting that money from debt collectors and creditors," according to the announcement.

Washington

In March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, updated a proclamation on consumer debt garnishments with new language to include "federal payments of any kind issued in response to the Covid-19 pandemic," which applies to the $1,400 stimulus payments.

"Your stimulus check should help pay for necessities, such as food and rent," Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement. "It should not be garnished to pay for medical bills.

"If consumer debt collectors are going after your stimulus payment, contact my office."

This article may be updated as new information develops. Please check back for updates.

Have you had difficulty getting your $1,400 stimulus check because of unpaid debts and are willing to share your story? Email lorie.konish@nbcuni.com.

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