A "wage garnishment," sometimes called a "wage attachment," is an order requiring your employer to withhold a specific amount of money from your pay and send it directly to one of your creditors. Different garnishment rules apply to different types of debt, and legal limits apply to how much of your paycheck can be garnished.
In most cases, a creditor can't garnish your wages without first getting a money judgment from a court. For instance, if you're behind on credit card payments or owe a doctor's bill, those creditors can't garnish your wages unless they sue you and get a judgment. Some creditors, however, like those you owe taxes, federal student loans, child support, or alimony, don't have to file a suit to get a wage garnishment. These creditors have a statutory right to take money directly out of your paycheck.
Florida's wage garnishment laws generally follow the federal wage garnishment laws. But some exemptions are available in Florida that might limit a creditor's rights to garnish your wages. For the most part, creditors with judgments can take up to 25% of your wages and only if your wages meet a minimum threshold. However, for a few types of debts, creditors can take more.
Generally, any of your creditors might be able to garnish your wages. Again, some creditors must first get a judgment and court order before garnishing wages. Other creditors don't need a court order.
The most common types of debt that may be garnished from your wages include:
Under federal law, the garnishment amount judgment creditors can take is limited to 25% of your disposable earnings for that week (what's left after mandatory deductions) or the amount by which your disposable earnings for that week exceed 30 times the federal minimum hourly wage, whichever is less. (15 U.S.C. § 1673).
Florida's wage garnishment laws are the same as federal law, with some added protection if you qualify for a head of family exemption.
Florida's wage garnishment laws are located in Title XV, Chapter 222, and Title VI, Chapter 77 of the Florida Statutes.
Again, federal law limits how much money can be garnished from your paycheck. The idea is that you should have enough left to pay for living expenses. Florida hasn't imposed stricter limits, so federal law governs in Florida. Here are the rules.
A creditor can garnish 25% of your disposable income or the amount by which your disposable income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less. In Florida, if your disposable income is less than 30 times the federal minimum wage, your wages can't be garnished at all. (Fla. Stat. § 222.11).
Florida law allows employers to charge you for complying with wage garnishment orders and to deduct these charges from your paycheck.
If you are head of the family and your wages are $750 per week or less, your wages can't be garnished by a judgment creditor if you claim the head of family exemption. Disposable earnings of a head of a family, which are greater than $750 a week, may not be attached or garnished unless you agree in writing. To qualify as head of family, you must provide more than one-half of the support for a child or other dependent. (Fla. Stat. § 222.11).
So, there really are no dollar limits to Florida's head of family exemption if you qualify as a head of family and don't waive the exemption. In this situation, you may exempt an unlimited amount of your earnings from garnishment. However, waivers are sometimes included as part of a promissory note or consumer debt contract.
Also, this exemption isn't automatic; you must claim it by responding to the judgment creditor's wage garnishment writ when you're notified about the wage garnishment. If you don't file your claim of exemption form by the deadline, you'll probably lose the exemption. A lawyer can help you fill out the form and ensure you file it on time.
The garnishment process often starts after a creditor gets a judgment in court against a debtor. If a creditor gets a judgment against you, the court will send a notice of a wage garnishment to you and to your employer. The notice tells your employer they must withhold a specific amount of your wages.
The garnishment documents that you received from the court should contain instructions on what you must do to object to the garnishment by claiming exemptions. You must file any exemptions to the garnishment within 20 days of receiving the notice. Also, the creditor must send you a notice of the garnishment within five business days of the issuance of the writ of garnishment or within three business days after the writ is served on you, whichever is later. (Fla. Stat. § 77.041).
You also might be able to object if the wage garnishment was made in error or the creditor failed to follow the law or comply with legal procedures. A garnishment lawyer can help you identify any mistakes and object to the garnishment.
If you don't object or if your objection fails, your employer will start taking money out of your paycheck and sending it to the garnishing creditor.
Creditors who have obtained a court judgment against an individual for unpaid debts can garnish your wages. These garnishments commonly apply to creditors like credit card companies, medical providers, or banks that provide personal loans. Also, you might face a wage garnishment as the result of a court-ordered obligation, like child support or alimony.
In addition, the federal government can garnish wages for outstanding federal debts, including unpaid taxes or defaulted federal student loans. Agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the U.S. Department of Education, can start wage garnishment proceedings after giving due notice and an opportunity to resolve the debt. However, there are limitations on the percentage of disposable income that can be garnished (see below).
In addition to wage garnishment, another way to garnish money is by levying a bank account, subject to some exemptions. Certain money in your bank account is protected from this type of garnishment, for example, two months' worth of certain federal benefits, such as Social Security. So, credit card companies, medical services providers, and other commercial creditors generally can't garnish Social Security and other federal benefits.
However, the federal government can garnish some kinds of federal benefits, such as Social Security and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), to recover some debts, like back taxes or defaulted student loan payments.
In Florida, earnings exempt under the head of family exemption, which you deposited in your bank, are also exempt from garnishment for six months after the deposit date if the funds can be traced and properly identified as earnings. (Commingling of earnings with other funds doesn't by itself defeat the ability of a head of family to trace earnings.) (Fla. Stat. § 222.11).
If you owe child support, federal student loans, or taxes, the government or creditor can garnish your wages without getting a court judgment. The amount that can be garnished is 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 fall behind in child support payments.
Federal law limits what can be taken from your paycheck for this type of wage garnishment. Up to 50% of your disposable earnings may be garnished to pay child support 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 may be garnished for support payments over 12 weeks in arrears. (15 U.S.C. § 1673).
If you are 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, called 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. ((20 U.S.C. § 1095a(a)(1), 15 U.S.C. § 1673).
The federal government can garnish your wages if you owe back taxes, even without a court judgment. The amount it can garnish depends on how many dependents you have and your deduction rate. (26 U.S.C. § 6334(d)).
States and local governments may also be able to garnish your wages to collect unpaid state and local taxes. Contact your state labor department to find out more.
Under federal law, if you have more than one garnishment, the total amount garnishment amount is limited to 25%. (15 U.S.C. § 1673). For example, if the federal government is garnishing 15% of your income to repay defaulted student loans and your employer receives a second wage garnishment order, the employer can only take another 10% of your income to send to the second creditor.
Complying with wage garnishment orders can be a hassle for your employer, and some might be inclined to terminate your employment rather than comply with the order. State and federal law provide some protection for you in this situation.
Federal law prohibits your employer from discharging you if you have one wage garnishment but won't protect you if you have more. (15 U.S.C. § 1674). A local attorney should be able to advise you about protections in Florida.
The creditor will continue to garnish your wages until the debt is paid off or you take some measure to stop the garnishment, such as claiming an exemption with the court. Your state's exemption laws determine the amount of income you'll be able to keep. Depending on your situation, you might be able to partially or fully keep your money.
You can also potentially stop most garnishments by filing for bankruptcy.
Depending on the type of debt that's being garnished, you might have other options. For example, if the IRS is garnishing your wages because of overdue taxes, you can make a settlement offer (an "offer in compromise") or set up a payment plan.
The most obvious consequence of a wage garnishment is a reduction in your take-home pay. A smaller paycheck can affect your ability to cover basic living expenses, potentially leading to difficulties paying your monthly bills.
Also, while a wage garnishment won't appear on your credit reports, creditors do report delinquent debt to the credit reporting agencies. And the reports can include information about how the debt is being collected, including through a wage garnishment. The missed payments culminating in a wage garnishment and other negative information will generally stay on your credit reports for seven years, affecting your future financial opportunities and potentially hindering your efforts to rebuild your credit.
Beyond the financial strain, the emotional consequences of wage garnishment can be taxing. Knowing that some of your earnings will be garnished can lead to stress and anxiety. Seeking advice from a lawyer and exploring ways to resolve the underlying debt or work out payment terms can lessen some of these pressures.
If you receive a notice of a wage garnishment order, you might be able to protect (exempt) some or all of your wages by filing an exemption claim with the court or raising an objection. The procedures you need to follow to object to a wage garnishment depend on the type of debt that the creditor is trying to collect, as well as the laws of your state. But usually, you must act quickly. You might have to go to a hearing, but if you win, a judge might eliminate or reduce the garnishment.
Again, you can often stop garnishments by filing for bankruptcy. Your state's exemption laws determine the amount of income you'll be able to keep.
Talk to a lawyer to learn more about how you can protect your wages.
Learn about wage garnishments for credit card debt.
Find out if a mortgage company can garnish your wages after foreclosure.
Get information about when a creditor will stop garnishing wages.
Check out the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity website at floridajobs.org for information about wage garnishment limits in Florida, including the procedures employers must follow when carrying out wage garnishment orders.
For information specific to your situation or to get help objecting to a garnishment, contact a local debt relief attorney.