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Wage Garnishment: How It Works and What You Can Do

Sean Pyles

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money .

Wage garnishment happens when a court orders that your employer withhold a specific portion of your paycheck and send it directly to the creditor or person to whom you owe money, until your debt is resolved.

Child support, consumer debts and student loans are common sources of wage garnishment. Your earnings will be garnished until the debt is paid off or otherwise resolved.

You have legal rights, including caps on how much can be taken at once. And you can take steps to lessen the effect and help you bounce back.

Types of wage garnishment and how it happens

Wage garnishment is more common than you might think. A report by ADP Research Institute found that 7% of the 12 million employees it assessed had wages garnished in 2016. For workers ages 35 to 44, the number hit 10.2%. The top reasons were child support; consumer debts and student loans ; and tax levies .

» MORE: How to stop a wage garnishment

There are two types of garnishment:

In wage garnishment , creditors can legally require your employer to hand over part of your earnings to pay off your debts.

In nonwage garnishment , commonly referred to as a bank levy, creditors can tap into your bank account.

Garnishment often happens when a creditor sues you for nonpayment of a debt and wins in court. Sometimes, though, a creditor can force garnishment without a court order, for instance, if you owe child support, back taxes or a balance on federal student loans.

The court will send notices to you and your bank or employer, and the garnishment will begin in five to 30 business days, depending on your creditor and state. The garnishment continues until the debt, potentially including court fees and interest, is paid.

How much of your wages can be garnished?

Here’s an overview of the federal limits on how much of your disposable income a creditor can take. (When it comes to wage garnishment, “disposable income” means anything left after the necessary deductions such as taxes and Social Security.)

State laws around garnishment vary greatly. Your state may have additional protections that shelter more of your income or bank account balance, or it may offer exemptions for situations like being head of household with dependent children. In most cases, debtors must learn about exemptions and ask for them on their own. Nonwage garnishment, which is less common, is generally less regulated and has fewer restrictions for creditors.

What you can do about wage garnishment

You have some rights in the wage garnishment process, but in most states, it’s your responsibility to be aware of and exercise these rights.

You have to be legally notified of the garnishment.

You can file a dispute if the notice has inaccurate information or you believe you don’t owe the debt.

Some forms of income, such as Social Security and veterans benefits, are exempt from garnishment as income. However, they could be subject to seizure once in your bank account .

You can’t be fired for having one wage garnishment, but you’ll lose this protection if you incur more than one garnishment.

If you believe the judgment was made in error or it’s causing undue harm to your finances, you can challenge the garnishment .

What to do when you get a garnishment judgment

First, carefully read the judgment to verify that all of the information is accurate. Make sure that it’s not something you already paid and that it’s in fact your debt. If it is, consider how much money will be taken and what it will mean for your financial situation.

Then weigh what to do next. If you haven’t done so before, you may want to consult a consumer law attorney or local legal aid to determine what’s best for you. You have three main options:

Work out a different deal

Contact your creditors. "A lot of consumers underestimate the power of a conversation," says Tara Alderete, director of enterprise learning at the nonprofit financial counseling agency Money Management International. "Look at a budget, see how much you owe, what you can pay, and then just call the creditor to see if you can work out a payment plan. Creditors and consumers always have that ability."

Challenge the judgment

If you believe the garnishment was made in error, will cause undue harm or is being improperly executed, you can object in court. You’ll have to act quickly. You may have as few as five business days to contest the ruling.

Accept the garnishment

You can pay off the garnishment in installments as the judgment states or pay in a lump sum. Borrowing money from a family member or taking out a personal loan to pay off the judgment, which is possible even with the garnishment on your credit report, could give you quick relief from the stress of a prolonged series of payments.

It can be embarrassing to have your employer know you’ve been sued for debt, but it’s best to be honest with your manager or human relations department.

"Wage garnishment can cause stress in the work environment, so be proactive in talking with your employer," Alderete says. "Have a conversation where you say what’s happening and that you don’t want it to become a problem."

If wage garnishment is a financial burden

If you don’t see a path forward from wage garnishment, consult the free services of a nonprofit credit counselor to discuss your debt relief options , such as a repayment plan or bankruptcy.

A garnishment judgment will stay on your credit reports for up to seven years, affecting your credit score. But there are a few easy ways to bolster your credit, both during and after wage garnishment.

Building a budget — and sticking to it — can help you stay on top of your finances to avoid another garnishment. From there, you can take out products such as a secured credit card to work on restoring your credit .

On a similar note...

  • Bankruptcy Basics
  • Chapter 11 Bankruptcy
  • Chapter 13 Bankruptcy
  • Chapter 7 Bankruptcy
  • Debt Collectors and Consumer Rights
  • Divorce and Bankruptcy
  • Going to Court
  • Property & Exemptions
  • Student Loans
  • Taxes and Bankruptcy
  • Wage Garnishment

3 Ways a Wage Garnishment Lawyer Can Help You

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An experienced wage garnishment lawyer has several tools that may be able to help you with a garnishment order. This article discusses how an attorney can prevent wage garnishments, reduce debts that could lead to wage garnishments, and eliminate existing wage garnishments. Finally, this article examines how a lawyer can help you file bankruptcy.

Lawyer John Coble

Written by Lawyer John Coble .  Updated July 12, 2023

If your income is being garnished, you’re probably wondering what you can do to stop this action. An experienced wage garnishment lawyer has several tools that may be able to help you with a garnishment order. This article discusses how an attorney can prevent wage garnishments, reduce debts that could lead to wage garnishments, and eliminate existing wage garnishments. Finally, this article examines how a lawyer can help you file bankruptcy.  

A Lawyer Might Be Able to Help You Avoid Garnishments Altogether

If you're sued for defaulting on a debt, an attorney will understand how to defend your case. If your income has an exemption available, a lawyer will block any garnishment of that income. An example of federally exempt income is Social Security benefits. State laws can also exempt income. For example, Florida exempts up to $750.00 weekly for heads of households. Florida also provides a wildcard exemption that can be used to exempt money in a bank account.

Attorneys can help you file your answer to a creditor’s complaint. If you lose in court, a good attorney will know how to reduce or eliminate the amount you owe. A lawyer can review all your agreements and correspondence with the creditor. They will be able to spot fraud, evidence of identity theft, violations of statutes of limitations, and more. A consumer attorney can make sure the creditor has followed important laws like the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The FDCPA forbids collection tactics that amount to harassment. Most attorneys will offer you a free consultation to determine what they can do to help you.

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A Lawyer Can Help You Sort Through Your Debt Relief Options

Most creditors must get a court judgment before they can garnish your income. The major exception to this rule involves some government creditors, including the IRS and child support agencies. One way to avoid court is to negotiate a debt settlement with the creditor before a case ever gets to trial. It's even better if you reach a settlement before the creditor files a lawsuit. A good attorney will have a feel for the best offer that the creditor will accept. 

Even if you lose your case and your income is garnished, a good attorney will make sure the creditor doesn't take more than they can legally take. There are complex laws that protect your rights after a judgment has been entered against you. An example of such a law is 15 U.S. Code §1673(a). This federal law is part of the Consumer Credit Protection Act. It prohibits the creditor from taking more than 25 percent of your disposable earnings or the amount your disposable income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less. An attorney can help you calculate the maximum amount of money the creditor can legally garnish. 

These options already mentioned are good choices if you have only one or two debts you're behind on. If you have excessive debt from many creditors, it may be best to use the ultimate debt relief tool: bankruptcy .

A Lawyer Can Help You Through the Bankruptcy Process

If bankruptcy is the best solution available to help you manage your debt, a bankruptcy lawyer can help you understand the process. There are two primary types of bankruptcy available to consumers under the Bankruptcy Code. They are Chapter 7 bankruptcy and Chapter 13 bankruptcy . Either chapter of bankruptcy will immediately stop wage garnishments due to the automatic stay . 

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a quick process that usually takes 4-6 months. If you have significant nonexempt equity in your property, the bankruptcy trustee may sell some of your nonexempt assets to raise money to pay your creditors. It’s rare that a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filer has enough nonexempt equity that the trustee chooses to sell their nonexempt assets. The only thing most bankruptcy filers lose when filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case is their debt. Losing debt is a good thing.

Some debts can't be managed via a Chapter 7 bankruptcy but can be dealt with via a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Such debts include car loans and mortgages. Nondischargeable debts , such as many tax debts, can't be managed through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy involves a 36-60 month payment plan that may be a good option if a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing won't work well for you. If a bankruptcy trustee would likely sell some of your assets in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you may want to file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition. If you have debts that can’t be discharged in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you may want to file under Chapter 13. If you're behind on your car loan or mortgage, you may want to file under Chapter 13. A bankruptcy attorney can help you decide which chapter of bankruptcy best fits your needs.

Depending on your situation, you may not need to work with an attorney to successfully file for bankruptcy. Upsolve has a free tool you can use to file your own Chapter 7 bankruptcy without having to pay an attorney. This tool is only available to you if you are filing a simple, straightforward Chapter 7 bankruptcy. A few examples of cases where Upsolve believes it would be best for you to have an attorney include the following:

You own your home,

You earn more than the median income in your state, or

You have filed a personal injury lawsuit and it's pending now.

Each of these situations requires special expertise from an attorney.

The Upsolve tool cannot be used for Chapter 13 filings because you’ll need an attorney to assist you with the requirements of a multi-year repayment plan. There will be times during the plan when motions and court hearings will be needed. If you want to file a simple Chapter 7 case, Upsolve looks forward to helping you. If you have a more complex case, Upsolve can help you find an experienced attorney in your area.

Let’s Summarize...

If you’re having your income reduced due to a garnishment or if a creditor is threatening a wage garnishment, you need legal help. You don’t have to go through this situation alone. An experienced attorney may be able to eliminate a wage garnishment that’s already started. A bankruptcy attorney may also be able to reduce or eliminate debts that lead a garnishment. You don’t have to shoulder the burden of garnishments on your own. The quicker you seek legal advice, the quicker your garnishment will end.

Lawyer John Coble

John Coble has practiced as both a CPA and an attorney. John's legal specialties were tax law and bankruptcy law. Before starting his own firm, John worked for law offices, accounting firms, and one of America's largest banks. John handled almost 1,500 bankruptcy cases in the eig... read more about Lawyer John Coble

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Wage Garnishments

Wage garnishment lawyer.

Wage garnishment is the process of deducting money from your paycheck (including bonuses and commissions). Basically, your employer receives a notice instructing them to withhold a certain percentage of your paycheck. Your employer, however empathetic he/she is towards your situation, cannot refuse to garnish wages once a court order has been obtained.

It is completely legal for federal agencies to garnish your wages. Private companies can too, provided they first obtain a court order. However, wage assignment clauses in consumer contracts are prohibited.

How much are they entitled to take?

The Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA), with some exceptions, limits the amount of wages that can be garnished to the lesser of 25% of one’s disposable earnings each week or the amount by which disposable earnings are greater than 30 times the federal minimum hourly wage ($7.25/hour). Some states set garnishment limits that are lower than the federal limit. A few states bar wage garnishment altogether, except in certain limited circumstances (North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas). For more information on complying with the Consumer Credit Protection Act, visit the Department of Labor’s website.

How are disposable earnings calculated for garnishment purposes?

Typically, disposable earnings refer to what’s left over after local, state and federal taxes, unemployment insurance and social security. Unfortunately, any deductions not required by law, such as health insurance, charitable contributions, grocery bills, gas bills, etc. are not subtracted from gross earnings. For this and many other reasons, individuals who have their wages garnished find it very difficult to pay for even basic life necessities.

Can I get fired for this?

Probably not, at least not the first time it happens. Although employees are often embarrassed that their employers are now aware of their financial situation, they don’t have to worry about being fired. Under the CCPA, an employer who fires an employee because his/her wages have been garnished is subject to penalty. (Note that after the second and third judgment, the Act no longer affords the employee this protection.)

How can I prevent wage garnishment from happening?

Wage garnishments result from a failure to pay a debt, most commonly child support, student loans, taxes and unpaid court fines (although almost any debt can qualify for garnishment). Some warning signs that a debt may be at risk for wage garnishment include very late payments, multiple attempts from the creditor to collect on the debt, multiple returned checks, etc. For the most part, wage garnishment is to creditors as bankruptcy is to debtors – a last resort. If you feel like your debt may be headed for wage garnishment, you may want to consider trying to negotiate a settlement with your creditors. Our attorneys are skilled at negotiating large reductions in debt without bankruptcy.

Another thing – a private creditor can’t garnish your wages without first having obtained a court order or judgment against you. Before a judgment can be entered against you, you should be served with a summons and complaint, which describe the action being taken against you and the date and time of your court date. Whatever you do, do not ignore the court date! Failure to file a timely response and show up on the day of your court date can result in a default judgment being entered against you. If you’ve been served with a summons, please contact us immediately for a free consultation.

Can I stop it, once it has started?

Ordinarily, wage garnishment continues until all of the obligations of the debt are paid in full. However, in some circumstances, you may be able to have your garnishment released, or at the very least, reduced. For more information on how to stop wage garnishment, contact the attorneys at McCarthy Law today. One of our experienced attorneys will be happy to explain to you your options.

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  1. Wage Garnishment: How It Works and What You Can Do

    Wage garnishment lets creditors get repayment directly from your paycheck or bank account, usually the result of a court judgment. Here’s how it works and what to do.

  2. Wage Garnishment

    Wage garnishment is a legal procedure in which a portion of a debtor's earnings are withheld by his or her employer to repay creditors. Garnishment is a fairly severe consequence and is usually used only when an employee is seriously behind on his or her debts. Debts that may be repaid through wage garnishment include:

  3. 3 Ways a Wage Garnishment Lawyer Can Help You

    This article discusses how an attorney can prevent wage garnishments, reduce debts that could lead to wage garnishments, and eliminate existing wage garnishments. Finally, this article examines how a lawyer can help you file bankruptcy. Written by Lawyer John Coble . Updated July 12, 2023. Table of Contents.

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    Ordinarily, wage garnishment continues until all of the obligations of the debt are paid in full. However, in some circumstances, you may be able to have your garnishment released, or at the very least, reduced. For more information on how to stop wage garnishment, contact the attorneys at McCarthy Law today.

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