Wage garnishment allows a creditor to take a portion of your wages to pay debts that you owe. If you are facing a wage garnishment, or your wages are already being garnished, you may be wondering whether you should hire an attorney, challenge the wage garnishment on your own, do nothing, or take some other action. Whether you should hire an attorney or address the garnishment some other way depends on a number of factors.
Wages may be garnished to pay debts that have been reduced to judgment, or taken by administrative orders to pay certain debts such as child or spousal support, back taxes, or student loans.
Garnishments to pay judgments. A creditor may garnish your wages to pay a judgment it obtains against you. The creditor must first file documents with the court, asking it to order your employer to pay a portion of your wages to the creditor to satisfy your debt.
Administrative wage garnishments. In certain situations, a creditor may garnish your wages to pay debts without first obtaining a judgment. These are called administrative wage garnishments. In almost every case, the law mandates that child and spousal support be collected via wage garnishment, even if you agree to pay voluntarily. Other debts that can be collected through an administrative wage garnishment include student loans and back taxes. (Learn more about the different types of wage garnishments.)
If you are facing wage garnishment, you may wonder if there is anything you can do to stop it. Sometimes, the best course of action is to do nothing and let your wages be garnished until you have repaid the debt. But other times it might make sense to:
Below are some factors to consider when deciding what to do.
You don’t owe the debt. If you already paid the debt, or you did not owe the debt to begin with, you should consult with an attorney. At the time a garnishment has been filed, either a court or an administrative agency has determined that you are legally obligated to pay that debt. Because of this, proving that you don’t owe a debt once garnishment proceedings have begun can be very complicated. This is one instance where you will definitely need the help of an attorney. An attorney can assist you in gathering the evidence you need to prove that the debt is not owed, and making sure that all procedural requirements are met.
Legal fees will exceed the amount of the debt. If it is likely that the attorney will charge more to represent you than the amount of the debt, it may not make sense to hire an attorney. Ask the attorney up front if the value of the services he or she can provide in your situation is greater than what you will have to pay. A trustworthy attorney will answer that question honestly.
The creditor is taking too much. When you are notified that a garnishment has been filed, you will receive a packet of information from the court or the agency responsible for the administrative wage garnishment. The papers should include an explanation of how much can be taken from your paycheck each pay period. In the case of a garnishment to pay a judgment, federal law allows the creditor to take up to 25% of your wages or the amount that your income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum hourly wage, whichever is less. Some states allow a lesser amount. (To find the wage garnishment limits in your state, see State Wage Garnishment Laws.)
Other limits may apply to administrative wage garnishments. If you think the wrong amount is being taken, you should consult with an attorney. If, however, it will be too expensive to hire an attorney, you can challenge the garnishment amount on your own. (For a general guide on how to do this, see How to Object to a Wage Garnishment.)
You want to work out other payment arrangements with your creditor. In some cases, your creditor may be willing to work with you, especially if it believes you may file bankruptcy or that it will have some other problem garnishing your wages. Very often, you can avoid a levy or administrative wage garnishment by entering into a voluntary payment plan. In most cases, you can negotiate with the creditor yourself. If you are unable to do so, or don’t want to do it yourself, you should consult with an attorney. (Learn more about negotiating with creditors.)
Your employer is threatening to fire you because of the garnishment. If your employer threatens to fire you because of the garnishment, you should consult with an attorney immediately. It is illegal for an employer to fire you just because your wages are being garnished.
The creditor is trying to get around the wage exemption by garnishing a bank account. The judgment creditor is not permitted to take more of your wages than allowed by law just because those wages are deposited into a checking account. The forms you receive from the court will have a place for you to indicate which portion of your bank account consists of wages. If you are having difficulty with the paperwork, you should contact an attorney for help.
Bankruptcy will stop most wage garnishments. If you are struggling with debt, you may want to consult with an attorney to find out whether bankruptcy can help you get back on your feet. Filing a bankruptcy petition will stop most garnishments immediately. (Learn more in Bankruptcy and Wage Garnishments.) It will not stop an income deduction to pay child or spousal support. (Learn the difference between an income deduction order and a wage garnishment.)