If you have won a court judgment against someone with a decent job, you may be able to intercept up to 25% of his or her wages to satisfy your judgment. This process, permitted in nearly every state, is called a wage garnishment.
When You Can Garnish Wages
You can garnish wages relatively quickly and cheaply if:
- the debtor receives a regular wage (he or she isn't self-employed)
- the debtor's pay is above the poverty line
- other wage garnishments aren't already in effect (unless your debt is for child or spousal support), and
- the debtor does not quit the job, contest the garnishment, or file for bankruptcy.
Whether You Should Garnish Wages
The threat of a wage garnishment is often a strong impetus for a debtor to make arrangements to pay off a judgment because many people want to avoid the embarrassment and inconvenience of having their salary reduced.
Also, even though a federal law bars an employer from firing an employee whose wages are garnished due to a single judgment, most employees believe that a garnishment won't win them brownie points with their bosses. And the law does not bar an employer from firing an employee for multiple wage garnishments from different judgments (although some state laws do prevent this).
However, a wage garnishment could produce the opposite effect of what you want -- pushing a debtor to quit the job or, worse, file for bankruptcy. If you choose to garnish wages, remember that you walk a fine line between making great progress on collecting your judgment and closing off the possibility of collecting. Keep in mind, however, that if your debt is for child support, bankruptcy won't wipe out the debtor's obligation to pay you.
How to Garnish Wages
A wage garnishment requires little effort on your part. Procedures vary by state and locality, but usually you give the sheriff or other local official (called the "levying officer") information about where the judgment debtor works. The levying officer serves the garnishment order on the employer and the employer is required to withhold the proper amount of money (which is limited, see below) which then goes to you.
To find out more about the procedures in your area, visit your state's Department of Labor website.
Limits on Wage Garnishments
Under federal law, you cannot garnish more than:
- 25% of the debtor's disposable earnings (what's left after mandatory deductions),
- or the amount by which the debtor's wages exceed 30 times the minimum wage, whichever is lower.
If your judgment is for child or spousal support, you can garnish up to 50% of the debtor's take-home pay (55% if the debtor is 12 or more weeks in arrears). If the judgment debtor does not currently support a spouse or child, you can garnish up to 60% of the wages (65% if the debtor is 12 or more weeks in arrears).
Some states have even lower wage garnishment limits. If a state wage garnishment law results in a smaller garnishment, the state law must be followed. To find the garnishment rules in your state, visit our Wage Garnishment topic page.
Additional Limitations and Obstacles
You face some additional limitations -- or at least potential obstacles -- in a few situations.
Debtor is already subject to another garnishment. You cannot garnish wages if they are already being garnished by another creditor, unless (1) the first garnishment takes less than 25% of the debtor's disposable income (or whatever the state limit is), or (2) you have a judgment for alimony or child support.
The debtor's wages are "exempt." Each state has a set of exemptions that protect certain types of property. (To learn how this works, see When Exemptions Protect Wages From Garnishment.) Most states offer a head of household or head of family exemption. You may claim this exemption if you provide more than 50% of the support for a child or other dependant. This exemption protects all of your wages unless you agree to a wage garnishment in writing.
Debtor's income is not wages. For the most part regular judgment creditors cannot get a debtor's social security, disability, retirement, child support, and alimony.
To learn more about collecting court judgments, see Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, by Ralph Warner (Nolo).