Can a Debt Collector Garnish Your Wages?

Facing the prospect of wage garnishment can be unsettling. This process allows creditors and debt collectors to legally deduct a portion of your earnings to settle debts owed. Typically, this step requires a court judgment against you.

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Despite this, wage garnishment is not always as straightforward as it may seem. The laws surrounding this practice offer certain protections to debtors. By arming yourself with knowledge, you can negotiate more effectively with creditors or collection agencies and potentially reach a more favorable resolution.

In this guide, we’ll explore what you need to know if you’re at risk of wage garnishment, whether from credit card debt, loans, or other financial obligations. To overcome this challenging situation, you need to understand your rights.

Wage garnishment is a legal process, though its application differs significantly across states. Some states, such as Texas, impose stringent restrictions on the circumstances under which wages can be garnished. In contrast, other states may adopt more lenient policies. To fully understand the legality and implications of wage garnishment, it’s important to understand that there are various types of garnishments, each governed by specific rules.

State laws often provide additional protections or impose restrictions beyond federal guidelines. The types of wage garnishments include child support, federal debts, and consumer debts. Each type follows unique regulations, reflecting the complexity of this legal area.

An understanding of these laws is vital for individuals potentially facing wage garnishment. It empowers you to better grasp your rights and the legal processes that can impact your financial circumstances.

Types of Wage Garnishment

There are four types of debts for which wages can be garnished. Below is a list of wage garnishment types in order of their collection.

  1. Child support – In accordance with federal law, child support must always be paid first. The law also mandates automatic wage garnishment for alimony, spousal support, and other court-ordered family support payments.
  2. Federal debt – Federally backed student loans and federal tax debts are included in this wage garnishment category.
  3. State debt – State tax debts can also be collected through wage garnishment. However, state laws for garnishing wages can only be enforced after federal and child support obligations have been settled.
  4. Credit card debt – Credit card debts can be collected by private companies through wage garnishment, but only after all other debts have been settled.

Other kinds of debt can be garnished after the above four categories of debt have been settled, including outstanding medical bills and personal loans.

Wage Garnishment Limits: How Much Can Be Taken From Your Paycheck?

When a court issues a garnishment judgment against you, the amount that can be garnished from your wages is not arbitrary. Federal law limits the amount that judgment creditors can collect through wage garnishments. These limits are primarily based on the type of debt and your disposable income, which is the amount remaining after mandatory deductions like Social Security and taxes.

Consumer Debts

For consumer debts, including credit card debts, personal loans, and medical bills, federal law sets a ceiling on garnishment. Creditors can garnish the lesser of either up to 25% of your weekly disposable income or the amount by which your weekly income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage.

As of 2024, the federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 per hour. To illustrate, if your disposable weekly income is $300, a maximum of $75 (25%) could be subject to garnishment.

Child Support and Alimony

Child support and alimony garnishments can be more substantial. Up to 50-60% of your income may be garnished for these obligations. Additionally, if you’re more than 12 weeks behind on payments, an extra 5% can be added to the garnishment amount. This means someone earning a disposable income of $600 per week could see up to $360 garnished for these obligations.

Federal Student Loans and Unpaid Income Taxes

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and federal student loan creditors can garnish up to 15% of your disposable income. This percentage is applied irrespective of the standard deductions and number of dependents. For instance, if your disposable income is $500 per week, up to $75 could be garnished for these types of debts.

Important Considerations

It’s essential to note that these figures are subject to change, and state laws may impose different limits or offer additional protections. Always verify the current regulations in your state and consult a financial advisor or attorney for personalized advice. Understanding these limits can help you anticipate the impact of wage garnishment on your finances and plan accordingly.

Federal Benefits and Garnishment: Knowing What’s Protected

Some federal benefits are exempt from garnishment, whether it is money already in your pocket or money deposited in your account. These federal benefits include:

  • Social security and SSI benefits
  • Veterans’ benefits
  • Civil service, federal retirements, and disability benefits
  • Student assistance
  • Military annuities and survivors’ benefits
  • Railroad retirement benefits
  • Merchant seamen wages
  • Longshoremen’s and harbor worker’s death and disability benefits
  • Foreign service retirement and disability benefits
  • Compensation for injury, death, or detention of employees of U.S. Contractors outside the U.S.
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Federal Disaster Assistance.

The money in your account can be exempt from garnishment if you prove that it came from one of these sources. However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also highlights some exceptions to these exemptions. For instance, if you have fallen behind in child support or alimony settlements, your Social Security benefits can be garnished for this purpose.

When can a debt collector garnish my wages?

Typically, filing a wage garnishment order is a last resort for debt collectors and creditors. Debt collectors can use other methods and avenues to reach a settlement and clear the debt. As for when debt collectors can garnish wages, it depends on how cooperative you are and how aggressively they want to settle the debt.

For debt collectors that require a court judgment to garnish wages, the process can begin 5–30 days after the judgment. Before that, you’ll be served with the court papers, and after the judgment, you’ll be served with a notice.

Before garnishments for federal and state tax authorities are made, you will receive a notice. You will also be notified by your bank of the garnishment and the amount they will be deducting. Once the judgment has been entered, the process is relatively quick.

How do I protect my money?

Even in the face of a wage garnishment, you’re not helpless. You still have rights, and there are things you can do depending on the progress of the wage garnishment.

Know Your Rights and Exercise Them

Understanding and exercising your rights are essential.

  • You must be legally notified of the garnishment (whether a court judgment is needed or not).
  • You are free to file a dispute if the notice has inaccurate information, or you believe you don’t owe the creditor any money.
  • In some (but not all) cases, income such as Social Security and Veterans benefits are exempt from garnishment.
  • Garnishments on your wages are not grounds for dismissal from your employer. However, if you have more than one garnishment, you lose this protection.
  • You can challenge a court judgment on garnishment if you believe it was made in error or could cause undue harm to your finances.

Do Not Ignore the Creditor’s Lawsuit

In most cases, people in debt think they can solve the problem by ignoring the creditor; it can greatly affect your credit score. This only compounds your interest and prevents the court from hearing your side and giving both parties a favorable judgment.

Ignoring the lawsuit can result in the following outcomes:

  • A default judgment – This is when the court signs a court order that states the amount of money you owe the creditor. After a specific period, that judgment becomes final and unappealable, meaning you will not have any recourse if you want to appeal.
  • You pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees, court cost, and interest – If you don’t honor the lawsuit, you can owe the creditor a lot more money in attorney fees and court costs. Additionally, interest will continue to accrue until the judgment is paid or becomes enforceable after some time has passed.
  • It could hurt your credit – Such a judgment can adversely impact your credit report. You may not get new credit, and your wages could be garnished when they hit your bank account.

What can I do if my wages are being garnished?

More often than not, creditors are granted their requested judgment to garnish your wages. But that doesn’t mean that you have no recourse.

First, start by reading the judgment carefully. Can the debt collector garnish your wages? If yes, what will it mean for your financial situation?

At this point, you might want to consult a consumer law attorney to help you determine the best steps forward. Ideally, you will have three main options.

Work Out a Different Deal

Leverage the power of conversation and contact your creditors. You should look at your budget and how much you owe, as well as what you can afford to pay. Call the creditor to see if you can work out a suitable repayment plan.

After all, the creditor is only interested in getting repaid. And, if they believe your offer is fair and works well for them, they might just accept it.

File a Claim of Exemption

You may be able to file a claim of exemption based on your personal and financial situation. For example, some states offer an exemption for a head of household who has a dependent. This can include a child or elderly parent that they financially support. This would stop or decrease the wage garnishment order.

Challenge the Judgment

If you believe the garnishment judgment was made in error, is being improperly executed, or might cause undue harm to your finances or those depending on you, you can object in court. You have to act quickly, though, because the appeal window is sometimes as little as five working days.

Accept the Garnishment

Sometimes, appealing or fighting the process is only prolonging the inevitable outcome. If you believe you owe the creditor, you can pay off the garnishment in installments according to the judgment or pay in a lump sum.

You can also borrow money from a family member or take out a personal loan to pay off the judgment, which is possible even with a garnishment on a credit report. It can relieve your stress quickly and give you more flexible and favorable payment terms.

How to Reduce or Stop a Wage Garnishment

It can be difficult to make ends meet when you have a wage garnishment since it reduces your paycheck substantially. Fortunately, there are still remedies available to you after the judgment. You can consider the following options:

  • File a claim of exemption with the court – You can file an exemption claim with the court. If the exemption is successful, you can have your earnings exempted fully or partially under federal or state law. You should explain the nature of the exemption and provide calculations to explain your claim. Some states even have a form designed specifically for this purpose, which makes the process easier.
  • File for bankruptcy – You can also attempt to eliminate the garnishment by filing for bankruptcy, through the help of a bankruptcy attorney or bankruptcy lawyer. Depending on your situation, you can choose to file for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.


For many people, wage garnishment is a heavy burden. However, the law remains supreme, and you have several options available to you should your wages be garnished. One of the best decisions you can make is to seek legal advice and hire a consumer lawyer if you’re served with court papers. This will ensure your interests are well represented in court, and you have better chances of getting a favorable judgment.

To find an attorney, you can contact a lawyer referral service in your area and ask for an attorney with experience in consumer law, debt collection defense, or the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Some attorneys may offer free services, or charge a reduced fee.

Samantha Hawrylack
Meet the author

Samantha Hawrylack is a personal finance expert with a passion for writing and SEO who has been featured in publications like Grow, MSN, CNBC, Clever Girl Finance, Credit Donkey, and more. She writes about various personal finance topics including credit, loans, real estate, investing, and more.