Child Support Collection: Wage Garnishment & Property Seizure

The most common method of collecting a judgment for overdue child support is wage garnishment.

By , Attorney · UCLA School of Law

If you owe unpaid child support, your child's other parent has a number of ways to collect the money from you.

  • First, the other parent may go to court and ask a judge to issue a judgment (called a judgment for child support) for the amount of the arrears. Once the parent has a judgment, many collection methods become available, like wage garnishment and property seizure.
  • Even without a judgment for past-due child support, other options for collection include automatic wage withholding.
  • Finally, both the federal and state governments are also involved in enforcing child support orders—and they can use aggressive tactics to get the money for your kids.

If your child's other parent sues you and gets a judgment against you for unpaid child support, that parent has a whole host of collection methods available—more than without a judgment for child support arrears. And, even if the custodial parent got the judgment in one state and you have since moved to another state, that parent can register the judgment in the second state and enforce it there.

The most common method of collecting a judgment for overdue support is wage garnishment. The custodial parent can also seize your personal property, like your car, motorcycle, or boat.

What Is Wage Garnishment?

A wage garnishment is similar to income withholding. A portion of your wages is removed from your paycheck and delivered to the custodial parent before you ever see it. In many states, the arrears need not be made into a judgment to be collected through wage garnishment.

Procedures for Wage Garnishment

To garnish your wages, the custodial parent obtains authorization from the court in a document usually called a writ of execution. Under this authorization, the custodial parent directs the sheriff to seize a portion of your wages. The sheriff in turn notifies you and your employer.

How Much Can the Court Take?

The amount garnished is a percentage of your paycheck. What you were once ordered to pay is irrelevant. The court simply wants to take money out of each of your paychecks—and leave you with a minimum to live on—until the unpaid support is made up.

Under federal law, if a court orders that your wages be garnished to satisfy any debt except child support or alimony, a maximum of roughly 25% of your net wages can be taken. For unpaid child support, however, up to 50% of your net wages can be garnished, and up to 60% if you're not currently supporting another dependent. If your check is already subject to wage withholding for your future payments or garnishment by a different creditor, the total amount taken from your paycheck can't exceed 50% (or 65% if you're not currently supporting another dependent and are more than 12 weeks in arrears).

How the Garnishment Is Initiated

To put a wage garnishment order into effect, the court, custodial parent, state agency, or county attorney must notify your employer. Once your employer is told to garnish your wages, your employer tells you of the garnishment.

Requesting a Court Hearing

You can request a court hearing, which will take place shortly after the garnishment has begun. At the hearing, you can make only a few objections:

  • The amount the court claims you owe is wrong.
  • The amount will leave you with too little to live on.
  • The custodial parent actively concealed your child, as opposed to merely frustrating or denying your visitation (not all states allow this objection).
  • You had custody of the child at the time the support arrears accrued.

Seizing Your Property to Collect Child Support

If the wage garnishment doesn't cover the amount you owe, or you don't have wages or other income to be garnished, the custodial parent may try to get the unpaid support by going after other items of your property. Examples of the type of property that might be vulnerable include:

  • cars
  • motorcycles
  • boats
  • airplanes
  • houses
  • corporate stock
  • horses
  • rents payable to you, and
  • accounts receivable.

In some cases, even spendthrift trusts and your interest in a partnership may be used for payment.

To learn about other ways the government or your child's other parent can collect child support from you, see our Enforcement of Child Support Obligations area.

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