If Your Wages Are Garnished: Your Rights

Your wages can be garnished if you owe child support, alimony, student loans, or back taxes, or if a court judgment has been entered against you.

By , Lawyer and Journalist
Updated by Amy Loftsgordon, Attorney · University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Different garnishment rules apply to different types of debt. And there are legal limits on how much of your paycheck can be garnished. Creditors can't just seize all the money in your paycheck.

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 win 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.

What Debts Can Be Garnished?

Generally, any of your creditors might be able to garnish your wages. The most common types of debt that may be garnished from your wages include child support and alimony, unpaid federal and state income taxes, federal student loans, and court judgments against you for some other unpaid bill, like a credit card debt.

Again, some creditors must first get a judgment and court order before garnishing wages. But other creditors don't need a court order.

How Are Wages Garnished?

If a 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.

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.

How Much of My Wages Can Be Garnished?

If you owe a consumer debt, child support, alimony, federal student loans, or back taxes, here's how each of these kinds of garnishments work.

Wage Garnishments for Court Judgments

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.

Creditor lawsuit for a money judgment. 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. You'll get notice of the garnishment and information on how you can protest it. If you don't object to the garnishment, your employer will begin withholding part of your wages and start sending the garnished money to your creditor.

Federal limitations on garnishments for money judgments. 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).

State limitations on garnishments for money judgments. Some states set a lower percentage limit for how much of your wages can be garnished.

Restrictions on job termination. You may not be fired or otherwise retaliated against because your wages have been garnished to pay one debt. (15 U.S.C. § 1674). Generally, however, 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.

Objecting to a wage garnishment. 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.

Wage Garnishments for Child Support and Alimony

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.

Child support garnishments. 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.

Federal law on child support garnishments. 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.

Restrictions on job termination. You may not be fired, disciplined, or otherwise retaliated against because your pay is subject to a wage withholding order to pay child support.

Wage Garnishments for Federal Student Loans

If you're in default on your federal student loans, the government can garnish your wages. The amount that can be garnished is different than it is for judgment creditors.

No lawsuit is required. A lawsuit or court order isn't 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:

  • how much you owe
  • how to get a copy of records relating to the loan
  • how to enter into a voluntary repayment schedule, and
  • how to request a hearing on the proposed garnishment.

Federal law on garnishments for federal student loans. 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).

Wage Garnishments for Back Taxes

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.

Federal law on garnishments for back taxes. 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.

Garnishments for state and local taxes. 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.

How to Object to a Wage Garnishment

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, the process for objecting to a garnishment begins with preparing and filing forms with the court. 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.

Where to Find Instructions for Objecting to a Wage Garnishment

The garnishment papers you receive should contain instructions on what you must do to object to the garnishment. If the garnishment papers you received don't have these details, immediately contact the clerk of the court that issued the garnishment documents to find out this information.

In most cases, 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.

Usually, you must act quickly when filing exemptions to prevent a garnishment. So, file the required paperwork as soon as possible. You might have to go to a hearing, but if you win, a judge might eliminate or reduce the garnishment.

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.

Do I Have to Go to a Garnishment Hearing?

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.

When Will My Wages Stop Being Garnished?

If a creditor is garnishing your wages to pay off a money judgment, tax debt, or student loan obligation, for example, you probably want to know when the wage garnishment will end. The wage garnishment will stop when you:

  • successfully ask the state court to stop the garnishment
  • pay off the debt
  • settle the debt
  • discharge the debt in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or
  • pay some or all of the debt through a Chapter 13 repayment plan.

Filing a Claim of Exemption

In certain circumstances, even if the deadline to file exemptions has passed, you might be able protect some of your wages by filing exemptions. But you'll probably only get the exemption from the time when you submit your claim. You won't have any money returned if it was already garnished. Talk to a local lawyer to learn more.

Stopping a Wage Garnishment by Settling the Debt

Many creditors would prefer to receive a smaller amount in a one-time lump sum payment as opposed to the full amount paid in smaller, periodic payments over time. For that reason, the creditor might agree to settle the debt for less than the amount you owe. If you can get some cash to settle the debt, the garnishment will end.

You might have to pay tax on any forgiven amount.

Stopping a Wage Garnishment by Paying the Garnishment

If the creditor proceeds with the garnishment (that is, you don't settle the debt or stop it some other way), the creditor will reduce your total balance by the amount of money taken from each paycheck.

Also, you'll have to pay interest for many types of debt. For example, if the garnishment is due to a money judgment, often you must pay 2% to 18% interest on top of the principal balance, depending on your state's laws. A significant interest rate will make the underlying debt that much more difficult to pay off.

Ideally, you'll be able to pay off the total balance in a relatively short amount of time without too much financial hardship on your part. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. A sizeable principal balance combined with a substantial interest rate means you might find it hard to pay off the balance without significant financial difficulty.

Stopping a Wage Garnishment by Filing for Bankruptcy

You might be able to protect or exempt your wages from garnishment by filing for bankruptcy. Your state's exemption laws determine the amount of income you'll be able to keep.

Filing for bankruptcy immediately stops most types of wage garnishments, at least temporarily, because of the automatic stay order that's put in place when you file. Chapter 7 and 13 each offer different ways to take care of the debt.

  • Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Many debts can be wiped out in three to four months, such as credit card balances, medical bills, and personal loans. You'll need to qualify by passing the bankruptcy means test.
  • Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Not all debts can be discharged in bankruptcy. For instance, many tax debts and all support arrearages will remain your responsibility. If you don't want the garnishment to go through your employer, you can repay nondischargeable debts by setting up a payment plan through Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Other Options for Tax and Student Loan Debt

One of the difficult things about owing taxes and student loan debt is that the creditor doesn't need to get a judgment before garnishing your wages, and it's difficult to get rid of these debts in bankruptcy. Fortunately, procedures exist for negotiating tax debt with the IRS, and there are ways to challenge a student loan wage garnishment.

Getting Help

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.

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