Massachusetts Wage Garnishment Laws

How does wage garnishment in Massachusetts work? Find out here.

Updated by , Attorney · University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Creditors can't just seize all the money in your paycheck. Different rules and legal limits determine how much of your wages can be garnished. Federal law limits how much creditors, including judgment creditors, can take. Some states set a lower percentage limit for how much of your wages are subject to garnishment.

The Massachusetts wage garnishment law protects more of your wages than the federal wage garnishment law. Under Massachusetts law, most creditors can only garnish up to 15% of your wages to repay to your debts. There are, however, some circumstances under which a creditor may be able to garnish more.

What Is a Wage Garnishment?

A "wage garnishment," sometimes called a "wage attachment," is an order requiring your employer to withhold a certain amount of money from your pay and send it directly to one of your creditors.

What Are the Types of Wage Garnishments?

Generally, any of your creditors might be able to garnish your wages. 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:

  • 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 balance or personal loan.

What Is the Most Judgment Creditors Can Garnish From My Paycheck Under Federal Law?

Under federal law, the garnishment amount for judgment creditors 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 limit creditors to a lesser amount. The creditor then has to follow the state's garnishment laws.

What Are the Massachusetts Wage Garnishment Laws?

You can find the Massachusetts wage garnishment laws in Chapter 246 of the Massachusetts General Laws.

What Are the Limits on Wage Garnishment in Massachusetts?

In Massachusetts, the most a creditor can garnish from your wages is the lesser of:

  • 15% of your gross wages (that is, before taxes or other mandatory deductions are taken out) or
  • your disposable income less 50 times the greater of the federal or the Massachusetts hourly minimum wage per week. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 246 § 28). ("Disposable income" is the wages left after your employer has made deductions required by law.)

These limits don't apply to garnishments for domestic support, meaning child support or spousal support. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 246 § 28).

What Is the Massachusetts Wage Garnishment Process?

The garnishment process generally starts after a creditor gets a judgment in court against a debtor. In Massachusetts, the creditor then also has to go to court in a supplementary process action to get a garnishment order. In a debt collection case, the judge decides whether you owe a debt, while in a supplementary process action, the judge determines how you have to pay the debt. If you get notice of a supplementary process action, you must go to a hearing (the date and time will be included on the complaint and summons you receive).

The judge will decide if you can afford to pay anything toward the debt and whether you have any property that can be sold to pay the debt. To learn how to respond to notice of a supplementary process action, talk to a lawyer.

Limits for Child Support, Federal Student Loans, and Unpaid Taxes

If you owe child support, federal student loans, or taxes, the government or creditor can garnish your wages without getting a court judgment for that purpose. The amount that can be garnished is different than it is for judgment creditors, too.

Garnishment Limits for Unpaid Child Support

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 get behind in child support payments.

Federal law limits this type of wage garnishment. 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're more than 12 weeks in arrears. (15 U.S.C. § 1673).

Garnishment Limit for Federal Student Loans in Default

If you're in default on a federal student loan, the U.S. Department of Education or any entity collecting for this agency can garnish up to 15% of your pay. (20 U.S.C. § 1095a(a)(1)). This kind of garnishment is called an "administrative garnishment."

But you can keep an amount that's equivalent to 30 times the current federal minimum wage per week. (Federal law protects the level of income equal to 30 times the minimum wage per week from garnishment.) (15 U.S.C. § 1673).

Garnishment Limits for Unpaid Taxes

The federal government can garnish your wages (called a "levy") if you owe back taxes, even without a court judgment. The weekly exempt amount is based on the total of the taxpayer's standard deduction and the aggregate amount of the deductions for personal exemptions allowed the taxpayer in the taxable year in which such levy occurs. Then, this total is divided by 52. If you don't verify the standard deduction and how many dependents you would be entitled to claim on your tax return, the IRS bases the amount exempt from levy on the standard deduction for a married person filing separately, with only one personal exemption. (26 U.S.C. § 6334(d)).

States and local governments might also be able to garnish your wages to collect unpaid state and local taxes. Contact your state labor department to find out more.

Restrictions on Job Termination Due to Wage Garnishments

Complying with wage garnishment orders can be a hassle for your employer; some might prefer to terminate your employment rather than comply. Federal law provides some protection for you in this situation.

Under federal law, your employer can't discharge you if you have one wage garnishment. (15 U.S.C. § 1674). But federal law won't protect you if you have more than one wage garnishment order.

What Are the Consequences of Wage Garnishment?

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 stressful. Knowing that some of your earnings will be garnished can lead to frustration 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.

How to Protect Yourself From Wage Garnishment

If you receive a notice of a supplementary process in Massachusetts, 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. Talk to a lawyer to learn more about how you can protect your wages and property during the supplementary process in Massachusetts.

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.

And 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.

Does Massachusetts Allow Bank Garnishment?

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. Under Massachusetts law, $2,500 in an account in a trust company, savings bank, cooperative bank, credit union, national banking association or other banking institution doing business in the commonwealth is exempt from garnishment. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 246 § 28A).

Also, for example, two months' worth of certain federal benefits, such as Social Security are exempt. If your federal benefits are directly deposited to a bank account or loaded onto a prepaid card, these benefits are automatically protected from garnishment. But if you get your benefits by check and deposit them, the bank won't automatically protect this money. You'll have to go to court to prove the money comes from protected benefits.

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, like Social Security and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), to recover some debts, such as back taxes or defaulted student loan payments.

Read More Articles

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.

Getting More Information on Massachusetts Wage Garnishment Laws

This article provides an overview of Massachusett's wage garnishment laws. You can find more information on garnishment in general at the U.S. Department of Labor website. To find more information about wage garnishment limits in Massachusetts, check out the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and Mass Legal Help websites.

Talk to a Lawyer About Wage Garnishment in Massachusetts

For information specific to your situation or to get help objecting to a garnishment, contact a local debt relief attorney.

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