A "wage garnishment," sometimes called a "wage attachment," is an order requiring your employer to withhold a specific amount of money from your pay and send it directly to one of your creditors. In most cases, a creditor can't garnish your wages without first getting a money judgment from a court. For instance, if you're behind on credit card payments or owe a doctor's bill, those creditors can't garnish your wages unless they sue you and get a judgment.
Some creditors, though, like those you owe taxes, federal student loans, child support, or alimony, don't have to file a suit to get a wage garnishment. These creditors have a statutory right to take money directly out of your paycheck. In Washington, a few additional exceptions to the money judgment rule exist. A regular creditor can get a court order to garnish your wages before obtaining a judgment if you:
But creditors can't seize all of the money in your paycheck. Different rules and legal limits determine how much of your pay can be garnished. For example, federal law places limits on how much judgment creditors can take. 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). Some states set a lower percentage limit for how much of your wages are subject to garnishment. Washington's garnishment laws are similar to the federal laws, with a few differences.
The creditor will continue to garnish your wages until the debt is paid off, or you 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 retain. Depending on your situation, you might be able to partially or fully keep your money. You can also potentially stop most garnishments by filing for bankruptcy.
In Washington, most creditors can garnish the lesser of (subject to some exceptions—more below):
For private student loan debt, a garnishment is limited to the lesser of:
For consumer debt, the lesser of:
Disposable earnings are those wages left after your employer has made deductions required by law. (Wash. Rev. Code § 6.27.010).
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.
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).
However, Washington law allows up to 50% of your disposable earnings only to be withheld for a support order. (Wash. Rev. Code § 6.27.150).
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).
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)).
Washington doesn't assess state or local income taxes.
If you receive a notice of a wage garnishment order, you might be able to protect or "exempt" some or all of your wages by filing an exemption claim with the court or 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, as well as the laws of your state.
You can also stop most garnishments by filing for bankruptcy. Your state's exemption laws determine the amount of income you'll be able to keep.
According to 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. Some states offer more protection for debtors. Washington law prohibits your employer from firing you because a creditor garnished or tried to garnish your wages unless you're served with three or more separate garnishment orders within 12 consecutive months. (Wash. Rev. Code § 6.27.170).
This article provides an overview of Washington's wage garnishment laws. You can find more information on garnishment in general at the U.S. Department of Labor website. Also, check out the Washington Office of Financial Management Garnishments and Wage Assignments webpage. You can find additional information on the Washington State Legislature webpage and the Washington Courts webpage.