I am a newly divorced dad, and the court ordered me to pay child support. Rather than just telling me how much I owe each month and letting me figure out how to pay it, the court issued a wage garnishment order. Now, almost a third of my take-home pay, after deductions and tax withholding, is going straight to my ex-wife! Is this legal? Isn't there a limit on how much of my wages can be garnished?
There is a limit on how much of your wages can be garnished to pay child support (or child support plus spousal support). Believe it or not, however, the amount you are paying is well below that limit.
Generally speaking, there are a lot of legal protections for debtors when it comes to how creditors can collect what they are owed. For example, a credit card company or department store can't simply garnish your wages if you stop paying your bills. They must first sue you, win the lawsuit, and get the court to issue a wage garnishment order against you. Once they jump through all of these hoops, the amount they can garnish is limited to a maximum of 25% of your disposable income. For more information see Nolo’s article, If Your Wages are Garnished: Your Rights.
The rules are different for debts that are considered a higher priority. These debts include back taxes, student loans, and child support. Since 1988, all court orders for the payment of child support automatically include an order for wage withholding to pay that amount. (If you also owe spousal support or alimony, that amount may be included in the wage withholding order. However, if you owe only spousal support and not child support, the court will not automatically order wage withholding.)
Because child support is so important, the law sets a very high limit on the amount that can be withheld from your paycheck for this purpose. If you are not currently supporting another child or spouse who are not the subject of the order, up to 60% of your wages can be garnished. However, if you are currently supporting another child or a spouse (for example, if you have remarried and had another child), the court can order that up to 50% of your wages be withheld for child support.
The amount withheld from your check – about a third of your wages – is well within these limits. If you feel that you don't have enough to live on after your child support is deducted, that's a matter to bring up with the family court judge. Talk to your divorce lawyer to find out your chances for obtaining a modification of your child support obligations.