Unemployment benefits garnished from Clearwater couple’s bank account, leaving family $0

Better Call Behnken

Florida statute exempts unemployment benefits from garnishment by creditors

CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) – Kayte and Adam Bush say their lives have been torn apart by the pandemic. There was job loss, and then the couple and their three children all contracted COVID-19.

Kayte, a former dental hygienist, ended up hospitalized and still suffering from the lingering affects of the disease. Her unemployment benefits are helping the family keep food on the table.

But this week, the family was in for a terrible surprise. They went to the pharmacy to get medicine for one of their children and their debit card bounced, then discovered it was because their accounts had been frozen and emptied through a court-ordered garnishment over a debt they thought was on hold as part of a pandemic relief effort.

They turned to Better Call Behnken for help after they say their bank had few answers.

It turns out that this traces back to an old Amazon credit card that Adam defaulted on years ago. In 2018, records how, he came to an agreement in court with the creditor to make payments of $22 a month. He did, and when the pandemic hit and Kayte lost her job, they say they checked with debt collection company to see if their payments could be put on hold.

The couple say their request was granted and they called back several times to confirm. But court records show something else was happening. The debt collection firm went back to court in June and said Adam defaulted, and that triggered the writ of garnishment to be granted.

The writ was for $974.86 with court costs. The Bushes say they were told this week by the collection company that they would have to settle the debt for around $1,100. Until they could do that, their bank account would remain frozen and Kayte’s unemployment benefits would go toward the debt.

“This is a crisis situation” she said. “This is really bad. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Investigator Shannon Behnken consulted with attorneys Sara Jones and Jeff Canup, financial stability attorneys at Gulfcoast Legal Services. Jones and Canup had questions about how this occured, particularly since Florida law exempts unemployment benefits from garnishment.

In this case, the only money in the account was unemployment money, and the debt wasn’t even in Kayte’s name.

On top of that, the couple thought their arrangement to pause the $22 monthly payment was halted.

“I would have been more than happy to start paying,” Kayte Bush said. “We would have found the money. Now, we are going to be ruined. It’s not fair, and it’s not right.”

Gulfcoast Legal Services took on Adam Bush as a client. Within hours of calls from Behnken and Gulfcoast Legal to the debt collection firm, Rausch and Sturm, a Notice of Garnishment Dismissal was filed in Pinellas County Court.

That means that when unemployment benefits hit the Bush bank account Friday, the family should be able to access their money. Plus, every penny already garnished should be returned.

“I can’t even believe it,” Bush said. “Last night, I had lost hope in humanity, now I have hope.”

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