If you're behind in your bills, your creditors don't have to wait for you to catch up on payments. One of the steps a credit-card company or other creditor can take is to levy your bank account. A levy confiscates enough money from the account to pay off your debt. Your personal checking account is usually a fair target.
Process of Law
Just walking into a bank and emptying your account would be robbery. To levy the account, the card company has to sue you for the debt. If the company convinces the court you're not paying what you owe, it wins a judgment against you. It can use that to have the court or a local official contact the bank and freeze the account until it levies the money. The freeze may make it impossible for you to withdraw money from the account.
Every state provides residents with protections from court judgments. California, for example, exempts bank accounts from levies if you need the money in the account to live on. Don't expect a judge or the bank to figure this out for you. To protect the account, you have to fill out your state's exemption paperwork and submit it to the court by deadline. In California, you have 10 days to do this after you're notified about the freeze.
A joint checking account with your spouse may be convenient, but in many states it's doubly vulnerable to creditors. Even if you contributed more than half the money, in many states your spouse's creditors can levy 50 percent. Other states protect the account from levies unless your spouse incurred the debt for the benefit of the marriage. The rules are slightly different if your co-owner is someone besides your spouse -- such as a parent.
Some money is beyond the reach of your credit card company or any other creditor. Social Security retirement or disability payments are off the table. Many states exempt child support from a levy. To use these defenses, you have to show that the money in the account comes from a protected source. If, for example, you deposit Social Security disability checks in the same account as your other income, you may have trouble proving the money is exempt.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.