California law limits the amount that a creditor can garnish (take) from your wages to repay debts. Like federal wage garnishment laws (also called wage attachments), California creditors can’t garnish more than 25% of an employee’s wages after deductions. If you don’t earn much, however, California law protects even more.
(If you’re concerned about losing income, bankruptcy can stop many wage garnishments.)
A wage garnishment or wage attachment is an order from a court or a government agency. A creditor that receives it must withhold a certain amount of money from your paycheck and then send the funds directly to your creditor. Different garnishment rules apply to different types of debt—and garnishment laws limit the funds taken from your paycheck.
(Find out how wage garnishments work, how to object to a wage garnishment, and more in Wage Garnishment & Attachments.)
Most creditors must first sue you—file a creditor lawsuit claiming you failed to pay a debt as agreed and get a money judgment against you in the amount that you owe—before getting a wage garnishment order. For example, if you are behind on credit card payments or owe a doctor’s bill, those creditors cannot garnish your wages until they sue you and get a judgment.
However, exceptions exist for the following debts:
The creditor won’t need to go to court before garnishing your wages.
Federal law places limits on wage garnishment amounts. The idea is that you should have enough left to pay for living expenses. California follows the federal rules (with a slight variation that takes into account the state minimum wage and a higher multiplier):
For any given work week, creditors are allowed to garnish the lesser of:
“Disposable earnings” are those wages left after your employer takes out required deductions.
Example. Let’s assume you earn $1,000 per week, and your net wages (disposable earnings) are $700 after all required deductions. The current state hourly minimum wage is $11.00 (as of 2018), multiplying it by 40 gives us $4400. Your wages can be garnished up to $175 ($700 times 25%) or $260 ($700 minus $440) per week, whichever is less. As a result, your wages may be garnished up to $175 per week.
Under federal law, creditors may garnish the lesser of:
If your income is close to the minimum wage, California law provides more protection for your wages because the federal minimum wage is lower than California’s (federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 as opposed to California's $11.00 per hour) and the multiplier in federal law is 30, not 40.
Example 1. Let's say you earn $11 per hour and work 40 hours per week so that your weekly wage is $440. After deductions, your weekly income is $310. Under federal law, the creditor can garnish the lesser of:
The creditor could garnish no more than $77.50.
Example 2. In the same example, under California law, the creditor can garnish the lessor of
In California, the creditor would not be able to garnish any of your wages.
If you owe child support, student loans, or taxes, the government or creditor can garnish your wages without getting a court judgment. The garnishment amounts are different, too.
Since 1988, all court orders for child support include an automatic income withholding order. The other parent can also get a wage garnishment order from the court if you get behind in child support payments. (Learn about income withholding orders and collection procedures in Enforcement of Child Support.)
Federal law limits the garnishment to up to 50% of your disposable earnings if you are currently supporting a spouse or a child who isn't the subject of the order. If you aren't supporting a spouse or child, up to 60% of your earnings may be taken. An additional five percent can be garnished for support payments over 12 weeks in arrears. (Learn more about wage garnishment for child support arrears.)
If you’re in default on a federal student loan, the U.S. Department of Education or any entity collecting for this agency can garnish your wages without first getting a court judgment using an administrative garnishment. The most that the Department of Education can garnish is 15% of your disposable income, but not more than 30 times the minimum wage. Learn more by reading Student Loan Debt.
The federal government can garnish your wages without a court judgment if you owe back taxes. The amount will depend on how many dependents you have and your deduction rate.
States and local governments can also garnish your wages to collect unpaid state and local taxes. If you owe California state taxes, up to 25% of your net wages may be garnished by the state to satisfy your tax obligations. Contact your state labor department to find out more.
Complying with wage garnishment orders can be a hassle for your employer, and some might be inclined to terminate your employment. State and federal law provide some protection for you in this situation.
Under federal law, your employer cannot discharge you if you have one wage garnishment. However, federal law won’t protect you if you have more than one wage garnishment order. Check with a local attorney to find out more about state protections.