Many students depend on federal and state assistance programs to afford the high cost of higher education in the United States. The federal Pell Grant program is a fundamental part of the educational assistance offered to eligible students. If you are otherwise eligible for a Pell Grant award but are also behind on child support payments, any refund remaining after your tuition has been paid to the school could be intercepted and used to satisfy your child support obligation.
When you owe a debt to a creditor, the creditor may resort to filing a lawsuit against you in court and obtaining a judgment against you for the money owed. Child support operates in much the same way; however, the original court action ordering child support acts as the judgment without the need for an additional lawsuit. If you fail to pay court-ordered child support, the court may order that your wages and/or your bank account be garnished to satisfy the arrears.
Federal Benefits Exempt from Garnishment
State law determines what may be garnished and what the procedures are for obtaining a garnishment for most debts. Some states limit the amount of income that can be garnished while some states, such as Texas, do not allow income to be garnished for most consumer debts and judgments. Although state laws may allow additional protections for debtors, federal law protects certain types of federal benefits from garnishment in all states. Among those benefits generally protected against garnishment are Social Security benefits, Veterans' benefits and federal educational assistance.
Exceptions to Exemptions
Although most federal benefits, including education assistance, are generally exempt from garnishment, there is an exception to that general rule. Most federal benefits can legally be garnished for the payment of delinquent child support payments. Because of this exception, educational assistance could potentially be garnished.
The federal Pell Grant is considered the primary source for educational assistance, meaning that tuition and other direct school expenses are deducted from the Pell Grant first before other assistance is considered. If you qualify for a Pell Grant, the grant money will be sent directly to your school and all direct expenses will be deducted. If there is a balance after your tuition is paid, then it will be refunded to you. Most schools directly deposit refunds into a student's bank account. If you have funds deposited into a bank account and a garnishment order is in effect, then it is possible that those funds can legally be used toward satisfaction of any child support arrears.
- U.S. Department of Education: Federal Pell Grant Program
- Federal Trade Commission: Understanding Your Rights
- U.S. Department of Treasury: Answers About Garnishments
- U.S. Department of Labor. "Garnishment." Accessed Sept. 30, 2020.
- U.S. Department of Labor. "Fact Sheet #30: The Federal Wage Garnishment Law, Consumer Credit Protection Act's Title III (CCPA)." Accessed Sept. 30, 2020.
- U.S. Department of Labor. "Minimum Wage." Accessed Sept. 30, 2020.
Renee Booker has been writing professionally since 2009 and was a practicing attorney for almost 10 years. She has had work published on Gadling, AOL's travel site. Booker holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Ohio State University and a Juris Doctorate from Indiana University School of Law.