Seniors in Missouri now have a better chance of retaining access to their Social Security funds in the event of a foreclosure, bankruptcy or other judgment.
Stan Platke, an attorney for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri which has an office in Union, had a hand in a Missouri Supreme Court ruling which should help low-income seniors.
The ruling is designed to protect exempt benefit funds, like Social Security, from being seized or even frozen by creditors and their attorneys.
Platke said the process began three years ago because of the number of senior clients who sought help getting access to their Social Security funds.
Those funds, by law, are exempt from garnishment by federal law, but banks would often freeze the assets as part of a "hold first, question later" policy.
Seniors had to file paperwork to get access to the funds and could even rack up additional debt covering bounced checks written once their funds had been frozen, Platke said.
"We weren't fighting the creditors on the judgement, but the collection of the judgment," he said. "These folks with judgments against them, some of them have no source of income other than Social Security."
Platke said creditors would find out about an individual's bank account and file a garnishment with the bank.
"The banks would freeze the accounts and it would fall to the burden of the seniors to file exemptions," he said.
But now, with clearer rules from the state, banks are no longer freezing the accounts. Prior to the rule clarification from the state court, some seniors were having to jump over a number of hurdles to gain access to their own money.
"It got really crazy for some folks. They'd be living in one county and dealing with their bank in another while being issued a summons by a sheriff in yet another," Platke said.
"In the meantime these people would still be writing checks to pay their bills and they'd have no idea their accounts were frozen, these checks would get bounced and they'd have no idea. Suddenly they're on the hook to pay court fees," he said.
Many banks are properly following the rules now and even letting creditor attorneys know that the bank accounts are exempt.
Platke said those receiving Social Security should set up a bank account solely for those funds.
The accounts can be set up to receive the money via direct deposit, he said, making it safer from theft and fraud.
"I think that's the best way to go," Platke said.
Having a separate account also makes it easier, in the event of any form of garnishment, for people to show that their account is exempt.
"It has taken us a little time to get banks to fully understand they shouldn't be freezing these accounts, but we've gotten more feedback in 2011 that they are implementing these changes," Platke said. "It takes time for people to comprehend."
Prior to the ruling last year, Platke said he got calls from seniors all the time about Social Security funds being frozen.
Platke is the editor of the senior citizens handbook, which offers advice on financial assistance, healthcare, housing, consumer information, planning, veterans benefits and area agencies for seniors and those with disabilities.
The publication is in its 17th printing.
For more information about Social Security benefits, Platke or the senior citizens handbook, people may visit the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri Web site at www.lsem.org.