Can a Debt Collector Garnish Your Wages?

Debt

Creditors and debt collectors use wage garnishment to recover money owed to them. In most cases, the debt collector will require a court judgment against you before they can take money from you.

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However, wage garnishments are not as straightforward as debt collectors might have you think since you are protected under the law. You can protect yourself and reach a more amicable and favorable agreement with the credit card company or creditor if you have as much information as possible.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re facing wage garnishment or fear that it might happen due to credit card bills or other debts you have failed to pay.

Some states allow wage garnishment, but others, like Texas, have strict laws regarding which creditors can garnish your wages.

To fully comprehend the legality of a wage garnishment, it is necessary to understand the different types of wage garnishments. There are different rules for each type.

Types of Wage Garnishments

Under the law, wage garnishments fall into two categories: 

  • Garnishments that require court judgments – When you have missed credit card payments, medical bills, and other types of consumer debt, the debt collector must file a lawsuit to obtain a judgment before garnishing your wages. Additionally, Federal law limits garnishments to about 25% of your disposable income. 
  • Garnishments that don’t require court judgments – This type of garnishment doesn’t require a court judgment. In any case, the debt collector should inform you that your wages will be garnished. A court judgment is not required to garnish child support or alimony, unpaid income taxes or other federal and state taxes, and unpaid student loans. 

How much of your wages can be garnished? 

Creditors are limited in how much of your wages they can garnish if they get a garnishment judgment against you. In the vast majority of cases, a judgment will allow the debt collector to garnish your disposable income, which is what is left over after deductions such as social security and taxes.

Most Consumer Debts 

The amount of weekly disposable income that can be garnished for consumer debts such as credit card debt, personal loans, and medical bills is 25% OR the amount your weekly income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour), whichever is less.

Child Support and Alimony 

Up to 50-60% of your income can be garnished due to unpaid child support. If you’re more than 12 weeks late in payments, a further 5% can be taken.

Federal Student Loans and Taxes 

Depending on the number of dependents and the standard deductions, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) can deduct up to 15% of your wages. 15% is also deducted for federal student loans.

Will your federal benefits be garnished? 

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, wage garnishment 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

It is important that you are aware of your rights and that you exercise them.

  • You must be legally notified of the garnishment (whether a court judgment is needed or not). 
  • You are at liberty 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 affect 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 payment plan.

After all, the creditor is only interested in getting their money back. 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, such as a child or elderly parent, that they financially support. This would stop or decrease the wage garnishment.

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.

Conclusion 

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.