Federal Wage Garnishment Law vs. California Wage Garnishment Law

Learn your rights if your wages are garnished in California -- and how much of your paycheck can be taken.

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Both federal law and California law place limits on the amount that creditors can garnish from your wages. For the most part, judgment creditors cannot take more than 25% of your disposable income in a wage garnishment. But if you earn close to the minimum wage, California protects more of your wages than does federal law. On the flip side, under both federal and California law, if your creditor is the IRS, state taxing authority, the Department of Education, or a child support creditor, it can take even more. 

What Is a Wage Garnishment?

A wage garnishment is a court order requiring your employer to withhold a portion of your wages and send it directly to the person named in the order. Wage garnishments can come about in several ways. If you owe child support, the court will issue an order requiring your employer to take that money out of your paycheck and send it to the custodial parent. If you owe back taxes, the IRS can garnish your wages. And, if you default on your student loan, the Department of Education may garnish your wages.

If you owe money to another type of creditor (such as a credit card company, doctor's office, or department store), that creditor can't garnish your wages with first filing a lawsuit against you for the money you owe, obtaining a judgment in the lawsuit, and then getting a court order to garnish your wages.

How Much Can Creditors Take?

The rules for how much of your paycheck can be taken in a wage garnishment depend on the type of debt:

  • Judgment creditors (those who have sued you and won): the amount that creditors can take differs between federal and California law (see below)
  • Student loans: up to 15% of your net earnings
  • Child support: up to 50% of your disposable earnings if you are currently supporting a spouse or child who isn't a subject of the order; up to 60% if you are not, and another 5% if you are in arrears on child support.
  • Back taxes: the maximum depends on your standard deduction and how many dependents you have. In California, the Franchise Tax Board (the state's tax agency) can't take more than 25% of your net pay if you owe state taxes.

Judgment Creditors: Federal v. California Law

If a creditor has sued you, won, and obtained a money judgment against you, it also has limits as to how much it can collect from a wage garnishment. For most debtors, the creditor can take 25% of your disposable earnings. Disposable earnings are those wages left after your employer has made deductions required by law, such as for taxes. 

However, if you earn minimum wage or close to the minimum wage, California protects more of your wages than does federal law. Here are the rules:

Federal Wage Garnishment Limits for Judgment Creditors

Under federal law, the creditor can garnish the lessor of:

  • 25% of your disposable earnings, or
  • the amount by which your weekly disposable earnings exceed 30 times the federal hourly minimum wage (which is currently $7.25 per hour).

Example 1. Let's say you earn $8 per hour and work 40 hours per week, so that your weekly wage is $320. After deductions, your weekly income is $310. Under federal law, the creditor can garnish the lessor of

  • $77.50 (25% of $310), or 
  • $92.50 ($380 - (30 x $7.25)).

The creditor could garnish no more than $77.50.

California Wage Garnishment Limits for Judgment Creditors

When it comes to garnishment law, states must offer at least as much protection to debtors as does federal law. That means a state cannot pass a law which allows creditors to garnish more than 25% of your wages, for example. However, states are free to protect more of a debtor's wages than does federal law. California has recently changed its law to do just that.  As of July 1, 2103, under California law, the creditor can garnish the lessor of:

  • 25% of your disposable earnings, or
  • the amount by which your weekly disposable earnings exceed 40 times the state hourly minimum wage (which is currently $8.00 per hour, but may increase in 2014). 

Example 2. In the same example above, under California law, the creditor can garnish the lessor of

  • $77.50 (25% of $310), or
  • $0 (because $310 - (40 x $8.00) = -$10).

Because the judgment creditor cannot garnish any of your wages in this scenario, California protects more of your wages than does federal law.

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