My wages are being garnished and I can no longer afford food. What can I do?

Find out if you can reduce or eliminate a wage garnishment that leaves you unable to pay for food for you and your family.

If your employer is deducting money from your paycheck due to a wage garnishment (also called a wage attachment) and you can’t afford basic living expenses, you might be able to reduce the amount of the garnishment.

Some of the ways to lower—or even eliminate—the amount of a wage garnishment include:

  • filing a claim of exemption
  • filing for bankruptcy, or
  • vacating the underlying money judgment.

Read on to learn more about these options.

When Can a Creditor Garnish Your Wages?

Most creditors can’t garnish your wages without first getting a money judgment against you. The creditor must sue you in court and then either win its case or else get a default judgment (which it gets if you don’t respond to the lawsuit). After the creditor obtains the money judgment, it must get a court order directing your employer to deduct a percentage of your wages.

Not all creditors have to get a money judgment before garnishing your wages though. For instance, a streamlined process is available for creditors collecting tax, student loan, and child support debt.

You can learn more by reading Who Can Garnish My Wages?

Wage Garnishment Amounts

Federal wage garnishment law typically allows a creditor to deduct 25% of your after-tax income, depending on the type of debt. State law can limit the garnishment amount further. The creditor can garnish all of your wages above the protected amount.

You can find out more in Wage Garnishments and Attachments.

Options to Reduce or Eliminate the Wage Garnishment

If you won’t be able to afford basic living expenses with the wage garnishment, here are some of your options:

File a Claim of Exemption

Your state laws allow you to keep a certain amount of property needed to work and live. In most cases, you’ll use the same laws when protecting property in bankruptcy with bankruptcy exemptions.

  • The head of household exemption. Most states offer a head of household or family exemption. For instance, you might be able to claim this exemption if you provide more than 50% of the support for a child or other dependant. This exemption will protect more of your wages unless you agree to a wage garnishment in writing.
  • Social Security and disability can’t be garnished. State and federal law prevent Social Security and disability benefits from being garnished (unless the underlying debt falls into a special category). The funds will retain their protected status in a bank account unless you comingle them with other funds. Once mixed with money from other sources, you’ll have a difficult—if not impossible—time proving that the funds in question are the protected funds.
  • Complete the exemption form and file it with the court. You have a limited time to file an exemption. Check your paperwork for the deadline. After you file the form, the court will set a hearing. You should bring proof of your income and all expenses showing that you can’t afford the necessities of life.

File for Bankruptcy

Filing for bankruptcy not only stops most wage garnishments but in many cases, it will wipe out the collection debt along with other qualifying debt. When you file bankruptcy, an automatic stay stops most collection efforts. What will happen to your debt will depend on the bankruptcy chapter you file:

  • Chapter 7 bankruptcy. In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, if the debt is one that qualifies to be wiped out, then the garnishment will be terminated forever.
  • Chapter 13 bankruptcy. In Chapter 13 bankruptcy, you’ll make payments to your creditors through a monthly repayment plan. Keep in mind that some bankruptcy courts require your employer to withdraw your monthly Chapter 13 payment from your wages.

Also, not all debts get erased in bankruptcy. In a Chapter 7 case, a creditor can continue to collect a nondischargeable debt—such as using a wage garnishment after the bankruptcy. In Chapter 13, you’ll pay all of your nondischargeable debt in your repayment plan.

Vacate (Get Rid of) the Money Judgment

If you believe that the creditor obtained the judgment improperly, you can file a motion to vacate (get rid of) the judgment. In this request, you should list the reasons why you believe the judgment isn’t valid. Your situation will need to fall within the specific grounds allowed for vacating a judgment, and you should file the motion as soon as you find out about the judgment.

If you win the motion and the judge vacates the judgment, the lawsuit won’t go away. But you’ll have the opportunity to file a response and challenge the lawsuit in court.

Talk to a Lawyer

Some of the procedures listed above are more difficult than others to do yourself. Many courts have self-help hours staffed by volunteers who can help you file an exemption. Filing a motion or a bankruptcy case will likely be more complicated.

If you aren't sure about the consequences of any process, you should get help from a local attorney.

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