If a creditor obtains a judgment against you, it may attempt to seize your earnings to pay the debt. This is called a wage garnishment or wage attachment. You can also be garnished without a court judgment if you owe certain debts for taxes, child or spousal support, or student loans. This article explains what a wage garnishment is, how it works, and what rights you may have in the wage garnishment process.
(For more articles on wage garnishment, including how to object to one, visit our Wage Garnishment topic area.)
What Is a Wage Garnishment?
Most creditors cannot simply take your wages if you default on a debt. Instead, they must first follow certain procedures. In most cases, a creditor must first sue you and obtain a judgment. Once a creditor has obtained a judgment, then it may have a number of different options to collect on that judgment. A wage garnishment is one of them.
A garnishment is an order issued by the court, directing your employer to withhold a certain amount of money from your wages. Your employer must send that money directly to the creditor, or to the clerk of the court that issued the judgment, to be paid to the creditor. This is done every pay period until the judgment is paid.
If a judgment creditor wishes to garnish your wages to satisfy the debt, it has to follow the procedures set by the laws of your state and the court. In some states, the creditor must send you at least one notice, giving you an opportunity to pay the debt before it can attempt to garnish you. In other states, the judgment creditor can proceed directly with the court.
To begin the process, a judgment creditor must file papers with the court. The court will then issue a notice of the garnishment to you. Usually, the garnishment notice contains important information and forms for you to claim an exemption, object to the garnishment, and/or request a hearing. You may also receive notice of the date, time, and location of the garnishment hearing, if you wish to challenge the garnishment.
There are limits to how much a creditor may take from your earnings. Under the federal Consumer Credit Protection Act, a judgment creditor can only garnish the lower of:
25% of your disposable earnings, or
your weekly disposable earnings less 30 times the federal minimum wage (currently $7.25 per hour).
This effectively means that a judgment creditor cannot garnish you if you make less than $217.50 in disposable earnings a week.
The laws of your state may provide even greater protection against wage garnishments. Some states may protect more of your earnings (for example, Illinois protects 85% of your disposable income), and others (like Pennsylvania) do not allow wage garnishments for most judgments at all. You can find the wage garnishment limits in each of the 50 states on Nolo's Wage Garnishment topic page.
There are exceptions to these protections, such as garnishments for child and spousal support, taxes and student loans. (For more information, see Federal Limits on Wage Garnishment.)
Challenging the Garnishment
If you receive a garnishment notice, you have a limited amount of time to claim your available exemptions or raise other objections to the garnishment. Typically, you must submit a written objection on or before the deadline applicable to your case. You may have only five to 30 days to file that objection, depending on where you live and the type of debt you owe. Once you have filed the objection, you may still have to attend a hearing and make your case with the judge or magistrate.
If your wages are being garnished for taxes, student loans, or child or spousal support, the procedures will be different.
For more information on how to challenge a wage garnishment, see Objecting to a Wage Garnishment.
Getting More Help
Garnishment procedures can vary widely, depending on where you live and what type of debt you owe. You should research your state's laws to find out your available wage exemptions and the procedures for challenging the garnishment if you believe it is improper. It is also a good idea to consult with a local attorney to discuss your other options, including filing bankruptcy (if you are eligible), which can stop the garnishment.