If you owe alimony, child support, back taxes, student loans, or have judgments against you for other obligations, your creditors may be able to garnish (take) your wages to collect those debts. Before they can garnish your wages, most creditors must first sue you, get a judgment, and obtain a court order. But there are exceptions. Read on to learn more about who can garnish your wages.
What Is a Wage Garnishment?
A wage garnishment (also called a wage attachment) is a court or government agency order that requires your employer to withhold a certain amount from your wages and send it to your creditor. How much of your wages may be garnished depends on the type of debt as well as federal and state garnishment limits (discussed below).
For information on how wage garnishments work, the garnishment limits of your state, and more, see our Wage Garnishment and Wage Attachment topic.
Types of Debt Which May Be Subject to Wage Garnishment
Generally, any of your creditors may be able to garnish your wages. Most creditors are required to obtain a judgment and court order before they are allowed to garnish your wages. However, depending on the type of debt, certain creditors do not need a court order.
Below, we discuss the most common types of debt your wages may be garnished for.
Child Support and Alimony
Since 1988, all child support orders automatically include a wage withholding order. This means that if you are ordered to pay child support, your wages may be garnished without additional court action. A wage garnishment order can also be obtained against you if you fall behind on your child support or alimony obligations.
Wage garnishment limits for child support and alimony are also usually much higher than for other types of debts. For child support obligations, federal law allows garnishment of up to 50% of your disposable earnings (gross wages less deductions required by law) if you are supporting a spouse or child who isn’t the subject of the wage garnishment order. If you don’t have another spouse or child to support, this amount can be 60%. Further, the garnishment may be increased by an additional five percent if you are behind 12 weeks or more on your obligations.
Unpaid Income Taxes
If you owe back taxes to the IRS, the federal government can garnish your wages without having to obtain a court order against you. How much the IRS can garnish depends on the number of dependents you have and your deduction amounts.
State and local governments can also garnish your wages to collect unpaid taxes. But the amount they can garnish and procedures they must follow depend on state law. To find out more about wage garnishment limits for unpaid state and local taxes in your area, contact your state labor department.
If you are behind on your federal student loan payments, the U.S. Department of Education (or any entity collecting on its behalf) can garnish your wages without a court order – this is referred to as an administrative garnishment. The amount of the garnishment is limited to 15% of your disposable earnings or the amount by which your weekly disposable wages exceed 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less.
Court Judgments Against You
For most types of debt such as credit cards and medical bills, creditors must first sue you, obtain a judgment, and get a court order before they can start garnishing your wages. This means that they can’t immediately garnish your wages if you default on your obligations.
If a creditor obtains a court order to garnish your wages, federal law limits the amount that can be taken to 25% of your disposable earnings or the amount by which your weekly disposable income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is lower. However, keep in mind that your state is allowed to impose even stricter limits.