You have asked whether you should continue garnishing the account of Joe for payment
to the estate of his deceased former spouse.
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
Number holder Joe ("NH") and Colline were divorced in July 1981. As part of the Interlocutory
Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage, issued on August 6, 1981, the NH was ordered
to pay to Colline, spousal support in the amount of $900.00 per month until Colline's
remarriage, death or further order of the court. On July 20, 1992, a judgment was
apparently issued against the NH in the amount of $182,853.40. On August 9, 1994,
the Superior Court of Los Angeles County issued a writ of execution for the money
judgment against the NH in the amount of $218,214.41, which included $35,354.01 in
interest after the judgment.
In May 1996, Willis , Colline's attorney wrote a letter to SSA notifying us that his
client's February 1996 payment had been late and that she had not received payment
for March 1996.
Colline died in March 1997. In a letter dated April 21, 1997, the then-Assistant Regional
Commissioner, Dennise , notified the Los Angeles County Marshal's Office - the levying
agent responsible for enforcing the writ against the NH - that Colline had died the
previous month. Colline noted SSA had been garnishing the NH's benefits for delinquent
spousal support due to a previous garnishment order, and that it was continuing to
withhold benefits but had stopped payment until it was further notified regarding
the status of the garnishment. Colline noted that SSA could not stop garnishment without
a court order and acknowledged that garnishment could continue in order to reimburse
In a letter to the Los Angeles County Marshall's Office dated April 18, 2006, Assistant
Regional Commissioner, Stephen Breen noted that SSA had been forwarding payments for
spousal support to that agency since 1995 and that Colline died in March 1997.
Mr. Breen indicated that "normally," support payments stop the month of death unless
SSA was ordered to pay the estate of the deceased spouse and that, in the absence
of an order of continuance, payments would be stopped immediately pending the Marshall's
Office reply. Mr. Breen further inquired to whom $41,456.80 in payments since April
1997 had been paid.
In a letter to Mr. Breen dated April 28, 2006, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department
replied that they were unaware of Colline's death and had been forwarding payment/collections
to her attorney, Willis.
According to a May 24, 2006, memorandum from benefits authorizer, Richard, SSA stopped
garnishment in April 2006 due to the fact that Colline had died in March 1997.
In a letter to Willis dated May 15, 2006, Mr. Breen indicated that garnishment should
have ceased the month Colline died. He noted that spousal support payments stop the
month of death unless SSA receives "a second order from Superior Court to pay the
estate." Since SSA had not received such a request, Mr. Breen indicated that $41,456.80
in "spousal support payments" should be returned to SSA for reimbursement to the NH.
The letter set forth administrative appeal rights, but did not cite the basis for
the claim that garnishment should cease.
In a letter to Mr. Breen dated May 18, 2006, attorney Raymond Goldsten, on behalf
of attorney Willis who had retired, indicated that his office had been retained only
to collect the past-due spousal support for Colline, which, at the time of her death,
still included a substantial amount of arrears. Mr. Goldstein noted that, Elmer Van
Brunt had commenced a probate action following Colline's death and had been appointed
administrator of her estate. Mr. Goldstein noted that his firm had been distributing
the garnishment funds in accordance with the instructions Colline's heirs had provided.
He further indicated that, under Cal. Fam. Code § 4502, spousal support is enforceable
until it is paid in full, and that under the Cal. Code of Civ, Proc. § 686.010, after
the death of a judgment creditor, the judgment may be enforced by the judgment creditor's
executor, administrator or successor in interest. Mr. Goldstein indicated that his
firm was in compliance with the law and that SSA should allow the garnishment to continue
and release any funds it had held. He attached a copy of the August 1994 writ of execution
for money judgment and a copy of the instructions Colline's heirs had given to attorney
On June 1, 2006, Richard noted that he told Mr. Goldstein that SSA had terminated
garnishment and that it did not have "an order requesting garnishment payments be
issued to the estate of the deceased." Mr. Goldstein told Richard that the attorney
who had "the document ordering garnishment payments be paid to the estate" was on
vacation would not return for two more weeks. Apparently, Mr. Goldstein indicated
that federal law required the garnishment to continue, but he understood that SSA
needed to stop payments pending further development of the case. Mr. Goldstein was
also informed that his appeal rights would be protected pending the further development.
On June 30, 2006, Mr. Goldstein sent SSA copies of a June 2, 1997, order for probate
issued by the Los Angeles County Superior Court appointing Mr. Van Brunt as administrator
of Colline's estate and a probate letter of administration from the same date and
the same court. Mr. Van Brunt was granted full authority to administer the estate.
The materials Mr. Goldstein sent do not directly address garnishment. At that time,
Mr. Goldstein reiterated his position that the estate was in full compliance with
the earnings withholding order and that SSA should release the money it had been holding
pending solution of this matter.
The Social Security Act provides that monies payable by the United States government
are subject to legal process to enforce an obligation to pay child or spousal support,
42 U.S.C. § 659(a) (notwithstanding the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 407, garnishment
is available for spousal and child support obligations); 5 C.F.R. 581.101 et. seq.;
Millard v. United States, 916 F.2d 1, 3 (Fed. Cir. 1990); Program Operations Manual System (POMS) GN 02410.001, GN 02410.200. SSA is subject to the same requirements concerning child and spousal support orders
as would apply if it were a private person/employer.
42 U.S.C. § 659(b); 5 C.F.R. § 581.101(b). SSA is required to withhold benefits for
child or spousal support obligations in accordance with the applicable state law.
42 U.S.C. 659(a); 5 C.F.R. §§ 581.102(e, g); POMS GN 02410.200.C.
In California, a withholding order for support is an earnings withholding order issued
on a writ of execution to collect delinquent amounts payable under a judgment for
the support of a child, or spouse or former spouse, of the judgment debtor. Cal. Code
Civ. Proc. § 706.030(a). As noted, although the materials we received do not contain
an actual withholding order, it is not in dispute that there had been such an order
or that the NH's benefits were properly garnished at least until his former spouse
died. Under California law, an employer is obligated to continue withholding until
the earliest of the following occurs: (1) the date the employer has withheld the full
amount required to satisfy the order; (2) the date of termination specified in a court
order served on the employer; (3) the date of termination specified in a notice of
termination served on the employer by the levying officer; or (4) the date of termination
of a dormant or suspended earnings withholding order as a result of the termination
of the employment or an order concerning a higher priority assignment. Cal. Code Civ.
Proc. §§ 706.022(a), 706.032; see also Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 706.030(c)(1). The NH's debt has not been satisfied, no order
has been issued terminating the withholding order, the NH is still receiving Title
II benefits, and no higher priority assignment has been issued. Accordingly, there
is no legal reason SSA could have stopped garnishment.
We note that, in California, spousal support obligations automatically terminate upon
the death of either party unless otherwise set forth in writing. Cal. Fam. Code §
4337. The parties' divorce judgment also stated that support payment would cease upon
Colline's death. Accordingly, the NH was not obligated for additional support payments
once his former spouse died. However, at issue in this matter is not the NH's obligation
for support payments once Colline died, but his obligation regarding the money judgment
issued against him in 1992 for past due spousal benefits and for which a writ of execution
was issued on August 9, 1994.
In California, money judgments secured for payment of past due child or spousal support
payments are enforceable until they are satisfied. Cal. Fam. Code § 4502(a). Such
judgments are exempt from any requirement in the Enforcement of Judgments Law that
judgments be renewed. Id. A "judgment creditor," moreover, includes "the guardian or conservator of the estate,
personal representative, or other successor in interest of the judgment creditor"
unless "the context otherwise requires." Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 680.240. Judgments
are enforceable after the death of the creditor "in the same manner as by the judgment
creditor." Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 686.010, Law Revision Commission Comment. An administrator
of Colline's estate was appointed in June 1997 and given full authority to administer
her estate. As previously noted, we do not have an order from the probate court directing
that further garnishments should be payable to Colline's estate as referenced in Richard's
June 2006 report of contact with Raymond. For our purposes, however, such an order
is not necessary given the facts that no conditions for termination of the earnings
withholding order exist, a money judgment for past spousal support is enforceable
until satisfied, and Colline's estate stands in her place as the judgment creditor.
Although there are indications in the file that SSA could not continue to garnish
the NH's account for payment to Colline's estate without a court order, we have not
found any authority supporting this conclusion, and California law directs the opposite,
i.e., that an employer may not stop garnishment unless the judgment has been satisfied
or upon further order. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. §§ 706.022, 706.030. Were the NH current
on his spousal support payments at the time of Colline's death, his obligation would
clearly have terminated. Cal. Fam. Code § 4337. However, the NH does not appear to
have ever been current with his spousal support obligations, and California law directs
that the NH's spousal support debt did not terminate with Colline's death. We further
note that if the NH believes he is being unfairly burdened, it is his burden to seek
relief from the court that granted the money judgment and subsequent earnings withholding
order against him in the first place. There is no indication that he has availed himself
of that right.
SSA should continue to garnish the NH's account because the money judgment his former
spouse obtained against him for past due spousal support has not been satisfied, no
order of termination has been issued, and Colline's estate is entitled to continue
to receive payment as the judgment creditor.