If you receive a wage garnishment order or other notice of a wage garnishment, you may be able to protect some or all of your wages or income from the garnishment by using exemptions. What type and how much income is protected from garnishment varies by state.
What Is a Wage Garnishment?
Most creditors cannot garnish your wages without first getting a money judgment against you. This means the creditor must sue you in court and then either win its case or else get a default judgment (which it gets if you don’t respond to the lawsuit).
After the creditor obtains the judgment, it sends documentation to your employer directing your employer to take a certain amount from your wages and send that money directly to the creditor. You must take action to prevent the initial garnishment or address it if it has already started by claiming an exemption with the court.
Creditors that hold debts like taxes, student loans, alimony, and child support usually do not have to go through the court system to obtain a garnishment of your wages.
The creditor will continue to garnish your wages until you pay the debt in full or take some measure to stop the garnishment.
(To learn more, see Your Rights If Your Wages Are Garnished.)
Wage garnishment exemptions are a form of wage protection that prevents the garnishing creditor from taking certain kinds of income, or more than a certain amount of your wages. The idea is that citizens should be able to protect some of their wages from creditors in order to pay for living expenses. Accordingly, each state’s laws provide you with various exemptions that you may use to protect your wages.
Depending on your situation, you may partially or fully protect your income. Generally speaking, ordinary creditors cannot garnish the following types of income:
- social security
- child support, and
Exceptions do apply to this rule, usually for garnishment of federal taxes or student loans in delinquent or past due status.
Wages, however, are almost always subject to garnishment unless you can claim an exemption of some sort. (To learn more about how exemptions work, see Protecting Your Property With Exemptions.)
Finding and Using Your State’s Exemptions
An overarching federal wage garnishment law ensures that a certain minimum amount of wages are protected. However, some states have enacted more protective laws. To learn more about the wage garnishment laws in each of the 50 states, visit our State Wage Garnishment Laws area. To find your state's exemptions, see our Property Exemptions area.
Here's an example of how you might use an exemption to protect a portion of your wages from garnishment:
You receive a paycheck that was 25% short of what you normally bring home and come to find out that you’ve been garnished. You provide more than 50% of the support for a dependent in your care. Your state has a “head of household” exemption which reduces the amount of garnishment allowed in this situation. You fill out a claim of exemption form stating why you believe that exemption applies to you and file it with the court from which the garnishment originated. The judge will determine if you qualify for that particular exemption. If you do, the garnishment amount will be reduced or totally eliminated (depending on what your state law says).
How to File a Claim of Exemption
In order to take advantage of your state’s exemptions, you must file a claim of exemption. You do this by filing a document with the court that issued the underlying garnishment order.
The document will include your name, the name of the creditor suing you, and the case number. You should then specifically describe the type of exemption that you think applies to you that will allow you to keep the greatest amount of your wages. You need to file this document with the clerk of court office in the county where the garnishment originated.
Depending on your state’s laws, a hearing will probably be scheduled. You will receive notice of the hearing in the mail and you should plan on attending this hearing. At this hearing, the judge will expect you to explain why the exemption applies to your situation. If the judge agrees, he or she will order the creditor to reduce or stop garnishing your wages. If the judge disagrees, you will continue to be garnished.
To learn more about garnishment, see our Wage Garnishment and Attachment area.