Different rules, as well as different legal limits on how much of your paycheck can be garnished, apply to various types of debt. In most cases, a creditor can't garnish your wages without first getting a money judgment against you. The creditor has to file a lawsuit in court and either obtain a default judgment (an automatic win because you don't respond to the suit) or prevail in its case.
However, some creditors—like those you owe taxes, federal student loans, child support, or alimony—don't have to go through the court system to get a wage garnishment.
After the creditor gets a judgment from a court, it sends documentation to your employer, typically through the local sheriff. The documents direct your employer to take a specific amount of your paycheck and send it directly to the person or institution to whom you owe money until your debt is paid off.
But, again, some creditors (say you owe taxes, federal student loans, child support, or alimony) don't have to file a lawsuit to get a wage garnishment. (See "How Much of My Wages Can Be Garnished, below, for more information.)
Either way, you'll get notice of the garnishment. The creditor will continue to garnish your wages until you pay the debt in full or 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 income.
You can also potentially stop most garnishments by filing for bankruptcy.
Your wages may be garnished in some situations, like if you owe child support, alimony, federal student loans, or back taxes, or a court judgment has been entered against you. Here's how each of these kinds of garnishments work.
Let's say you've defaulted on a loan, stopped paying your credit card bills, or run up huge medical bills. Your creditors can't just start garnishing your wages. They must first sue you.
If you lose the lawsuit and the court enters a money judgment against you, the person or entity that won the lawsuit can garnish your wages by providing a copy of the court order to the local sheriff or marshal. That person will then send it to your employer. Your employer must then notify you of the garnishment, begin withholding part of your wages, send the garnished money to your creditor, and give you information on how you can protest the garnishment.
Federal law limits how much judgment creditors can take from your paycheck. The garnishment amount 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). Some states set a lower percentage limit for how much of your wages can be garnished.
You may not be fired or otherwise retaliated against because your wages have been garnished to pay one debt. Generally, though, less protection is available once you have more garnishments. Under federal law, you're not protected from retaliation if more than one creditor has garnished your wages—or the same creditor has garnished your wages for two or more debts. Some states offer more protection.
If you want to protest a wage garnishment, you must file papers with the court to get a hearing date. (See below for more information on how to object to a creditor's wage garnishment.) You can present evidence at the hearing that you need more of your paycheck to pay your expenses or qualify for an exemption. The judge can terminate the garnishment or leave it in place.
Since 1988, all new or modified child support orders include an automatic wage withholding order. If child support and alimony are combined into one family support payment, the wage withholding order applies to the whole amount owed; however, orders involving only alimony don't result in automatic wage withholding.
Once the court orders you to pay child support, the court or the child's other parent sends a copy of the order to your employer, who will withhold the ordered amount from your paycheck and send it to the other parent. If you're required to maintain health insurance coverage for your child, the payment for that will also be deducted from your paycheck.
More of your paycheck can be taken to pay child support. Under federal law, up to 50% of your disposable earnings may be garnished to pay child support if you're 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 5% may be taken if you are more than 12 weeks in arrears. (15 U.S.C. § 1673). State law sometimes differs a bit.
You may not be fired, disciplined, or otherwise retaliated against because your pay is subject to a wage withholding order to pay child support.
The U.S. Department of Education, or any agency trying to collect a student loan on its behalf, can garnish up to 15% of your pay if you're in default. (20 U.S.C. § 1095a(a)(1)). But you can keep an amount that's equivalent to 30 times the current federal minimum wage per week. (15 U.S.C. § 1673).
No lawsuit or court order is required for this type of garnishment; if you're in default, your wages can be garnished.
At least 30 days before the garnishment is set to begin, you must be notified in writing of:
If you owe money to the IRS, watch out: The agency can take a big chunk of your wages, and it doesn't have to get a court order first.
The amount you get to keep depends on how many dependents you have and your standard deduction amount. (26 U.S.C. § 6334(d)). Your employer will pay you a fairly low minimum amount each week and give the rest to the IRS. The IRS must send a wage levy notice to your employer, who is required to give you a copy. The notice includes an exemption claim form, which you can complete and return.
State and local tax agencies also have the right to take some of your wages. In many states, however, the law limits how much the taxing authority can take. Contact your state labor department for information on your state's law.
If a judgment creditor is attempting to garnish your wages, you might be able to challenge the garnishment by 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 from you, as well as the laws of your state.
Generally, though, the process for objecting to a garnishment begins with preparing and filing paperwork. If you believe your earnings are exempt in full or in part under federal or state law, you should state that fact within your written objection.
Or, depending on the circumstances, you might be able to say that you've already paid the judgment creditor or received a bankruptcy discharge.
The garnishment papers you receive from the court should contain instructions on what you must do to object to the garnishment. If the garnishment papers you received don't have this information, immediately contact the clerk of the court that issued the garnishment documents to find out this information.
Usually, a form will be included with the garnishment notice that you can use to write your objection and request a hearing. If you didn't get a form, ask for one from the clerk of the court that sent you the garnishment notice. If the court doesn't have a form, write out your objection and file it on time.
If you don't state your reasons for objecting to the garnishment and timely file that written objection with the right court, you might have waived your right to fight the garnishment later.
If the court sets a garnishment hearing, you must attend the hearing to protect your wages. The judge or magistrate will either accept (or "sustain") your objection and the garnishment will be reduced or terminated, or overrule the objection, and the garnishment will proceed.
This article provides an overview of your rights if your wages are garnished. You can get more information on garnishment at the U.S. Department of Labor website.
To get information specific to your situation, consider contacting a local attorney.