Employment Law -- Employee

Search for an Attorney  

Wage Garnishment

This page gives a broad overview of the wage garnishment law with links to more detailed articles that can help you answer specific questions. Because wage garnishment laws vary by state, we suggest consulting an employment attorney in a city near you to give you the best advice about your unique circumstances.

What is Wage Garnishment?

Wage garnishment is when a court or government agency orders an employer to withhold a portion of an employee's wages to repay a debt such as unpaid child support. It functions as a method to ensure a debtor repays their debt, but it is typically the last step a lender, also called the creditor, takes after other attempts to recover the debt have failed.

In some cases, a creditor can garnish a debtor's bank account instead of their wages.

How Does Wage Garnishment Work?

Wage garnishment begins when a debtor does not make their debt payments as agreed. The unpaid debt can have a variety of sources, such as a medical bill, car loan, civil judgment, child support order, student loan, or unpaid federal tax, state tax, or local tax.

Typically, the creditor will sue the debtor and, if successful, the court will issue a wage garnishment order, sometimes called a withholding order. However, government agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or a state tax collection agency can initiate the garnishment process without the court.

After a court issues a wage garnishment order, the debtor is sometimes referred to as the judgment debtor, and the creditor is referred to as the judgment creditor.

No matter how the process gets initiated, the debtor is entitled to due process. At a minimum, due process must consist of prior notice and a hearing. At the hearing, the defendant must have the opportunity to be heard and present a defense.

How Long Does It Take to Garnish Wages After a Court Judgment?

The wage garnishment process varies by state. Generally, if the creditor wins a court judgment against the debtor, the creditor must file paperwork to start the garnishment process. The court will send written notices to the debtor and the debtor's employer.

The garnishment usually begins 5 to 30 business days after the judgment and lasts until repayment of the debt.

How Much of the Debtor's Wages Can a Creditor Garnish?

Federal law limits how much of the debtor's "disposable income" or “disposable earnings" a creditor can take. Disposable income usually means the income left after the employer deducts taxes and other eligible deductions such as retirement accounts. The type of debt determines the maximum amount of money a creditor can garnish.

Type of Debt

Percent of Weekly Disposable Income the Creditor Can Garnish

Consumer debt, credit card debt, and medical bills

Either 25% or the amount by which the debtor's weekly income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less.

Child support & alimony

50% if the debtor supports another child or spouse; otherwise, up to 60%. The creditor can take an additional 5% if the debtor is more than 12 weeks late in payments.

Federal student loans

15%

Taxes

Generally, the IRS can garnish up to 15%. The IRS will determine the amount taken based on standard deductions and the debtor's number of dependents.

Some states follow the federal wage garnishment laws. For example, in Tennessee, a creditor can garnish the lesser of 25% of disposable earnings per week, or the amount disposable earnings exceed 30 times the federal minimum wage.

Other state laws can lower the amount of the debtor's wages the creditor can garnish. For example, California limits the amount a creditor can garnish to the lesser of 25% of the debtor's disposable income or the amount by which the debtor's weekly disposable income exceeds 40 times California's hourly minimum wage.

Illinois allows a creditor to garnish up to 15% of the debtor's wages. However, a wage garnishment cannot leave the debtor with less than 45 times the state minimum wage as weekly take-home pay.

Income subject to garnishment includes salaries, wages, commissions, bonuses, and other lump sum payments from the employer.

Support payments, such as child support, take priority over other garnishments.

What Legal Protections Do Debtors Have?

The federal government and states have statutes governing wage garnishments: when a garnishment is allowed, when a garnishment is not allowed, how much money the creditor can garnish per pay period, and any income that may be exempt from a garnishment order.

Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) prohibits an employer from firing an employee with garnished earnings for one debt. It also limits the amount of the employee's wages a creditor can garnish in any one week. It does not protect employees who have had their wages garnished more than once.

Another federal law, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), makes it illegal for debt collectors to use unfair practices, such as threatening legal action when they do not intend to sue the debtor.

How Can the Debtor Stop a Wage Garnishment?

The debtor has several options available for stopping wage garnishment.

  • Talk to the creditor to work out an alternative payment plan before the situation gets to the point where the creditor turns to the courts for help.
  • Defend the lawsuit to prevent the creditor from winning a judgment. Alternatively, the debtor can try to negotiate a settlement with the creditor before the court enters its judgment.
  • Challenge the judgment if it will cause the debtor undue harm or if the creditor is improperly executing the judgment. A court may reduce the garnishment amount if the debtor has a good faith hardship.
  • Pay the debt in full.
  • File for bankruptcy protection. Filing for bankruptcy may provide an immediate temporary stay to any debt collections, including court-ordered garnishments. However, garnishment orders may not be dischargeable in bankruptcy.

In addition to the above, some states offer the debtor alternatives to wage garnishment. For example, Ohio protects the debtor from garnishment if they agree to pay a nonprofit debt counseling service a portion of their income. The service then makes debt payments on the debtor's behalf.

How Long Can a Wage Garnishment Last?

A creditor can garnish wages for as long as the debtor has an outstanding debt. Many states, however, limit how long a judgment is valid unless it is renewed. Failure to do so means the creditor may no longer be able to enforce the judgment.

How Can a Debtor Find Out Who is Garnishing Their Wages?

The debtor should first check with their employer. Since the creditor had to notify the employer to start the garnishment, the employer should have documentation identifying the parties involved. The debtor's paycheck may also have information about the garnishment.

The debtor should also review all correspondence with creditors to ensure they did not miss a notice of garnishment. The debtor's credit report is also a place to look for information.

Finally, the debtor can contact the IRS for information about who is garnishing their wages.

How Can a Debtor Find the Balance Left on Their Wage Garnishment?

The debtor can check their paystub. Some employers will include amounts it has garnished and how much the debtor still owes. Some jurisdictions require creditors to file a periodic accounting of how much it has garnished. A debtor can request a copy of this information from the court. Finally, the debtor can contact the creditor directly to get the outstanding balance on the debt.

Can a Debtor's Wages Be Garnished Without Notice?

The employer is not required to notify the debtor of wage garnishment in all states. However, the court should have notified the debtor when the creditor filed suit against the debtor. If a federal agency, like the IRS, is garnishing the wages, the agency should have provided notice to the debtor.

Can a Debt Collector Garnish Wages?

Yes, a debt collector can garnish wages. However, like most other creditors, it must obtain a court order.

Can an Employer Refuse to Garnish Wages?

A wage garnishment is often a court order, so an employer cannot refuse to garnish wages in most states. An employer that fails to garnish wages is possibly liable for the total debt owed to the creditor plus associated court costs and fees.

Can a Person's Wages be Garnished for Their Spouse's Debt?

In most cases, the person who incurred a debt solely in their name is responsible for paying it. A spouse can become liable if they jointly take on the debt or co-sign on the loan.

Debts incurred by one spouse before the marriage are separate. However, in community property states, debts taken on by one spouse after marriage are typically joint debts. In this case, a person can have their wages garnished for their spouse's debts.

Can a Creditor Garnish Unemployment Benefits?

A creditor cannot usually garnish unemployment benefit payments and other assistance such as Social Security. However, the creditor can garnish assistance payments when the debtor owes money for child support, taxes, or student loans.

Can a Debtor Pay Off a Wage Garnishment Early?

Yes. The debtor can pay off the debt at any time, ending the wage garnishment.