A wage garnishment order allows creditors to take money directly from your paycheck. Most of the time, this is only possible after a court has entered a judgment. Here's how California regulates wage garnishments.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated May 15, 2023
Imagine being stuck commuting on the Los Angeles freeway for hours and then finding yourself with a paycheck that is less than expected. Whether you’re working at a corporate LA firm or a delivery route in Stockton, your employer can garnish your wages to pay past-due debt. In this article, we’ll help you learn what wage garnishment is, the process creditors must follow to garnish your wages, and what limitations there are. We’ll also give you some info on how to keep your wages and stop a wage garnishment.
What Is Wage Garnishment?
Wage garnishment is a debt collection tool creditors use that allows them to take wages from your paycheck to repay an overdue debt. It’s sometimes called a wage attachment. Most wage garnishments for consumer debt require a court order.
There are both federal and state laws that govern wage garnishment. The federal Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) covers wage garnishment, and Chapter 5 of the California Rules of Civil Procedure governs wage garnishment in the Golden State. California’s state law provides more protection than federal law.
Who Can Garnish My Wages in California?
If you work in California, creditors, debt collectors, and debt buyers can garnish your wages for past-due consumer debt, such as credit card debt, back rent, car loans, medical bills, or payday loans. Generally, creditors must get a court order judgment to collect consumer debt.
Your wages can also be garnished for past-due alimony, child support payments, IRS debt, and public student loan debt. These debts are special in that they go through an administrative process rather than through the court. They don’t require a court judgment. This article will focus on non-special debts that do require a court judgment.
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California Wage Garnishment Process
In California, there are several steps in the wage garnishment process.
Step 1: The creditor sues you to win a judgment.
To garnish your paycheck, a creditor must have a judgment. To get a judgment, the creditor starts a lawsuit. If the creditor wins, the court will order a judgment, which will include the amount you owe. This will include the debt, plus costs, fees, and interest. After the judgment is granted, a separate process is required to garnish wages.
During the wage garnishment process, the creditor will be known as the judgment creditor or plaintiff, and the debtor will be known as the judgment debtor or defendant. The employer is referred to as the garnishee. The sheriff or similarly appointed agent is referred to as the levying officer. The creditor and the levying officer take the next steps.
Step 2: The creditor serves paperwork to your employer.
The creditor will request a writ of execution from the court. This is basically a written order that tells your employer ( the garnishee) that they must enforce the judgment by keeping wages from your paycheck. The court will issue the writ and the levying officer will serve it on your employer. It’s valid for 180 days.
The court will attach other papers to the writ, including an earnings withholding order, financial statement and claim of exemption form, and employee instructions. The court clerk may refer to these documents as the garnishment packet. The employer must return an employer’s response form within 15 days. If they don’t respond, they can be held liable for the employee’s debt.
Step 3: You get served and garnishment begins.
Your employer must serve you the garnishment papers within 10 days. Garnishment begins your first payday after 10 days from the date the employer was served. Sometimes a memorandum of costs after judgment is served with the writ. This document outlines additional costs that have been incurred as part of the collection process. The employee has 10 days to object to the extra costs.
Step 4: You can respond with objections and exemptions.
As the judgment debtor, you must object and ask for exemptions within 10 days of being served or the wage garnishment will begin. You can claim an exemption after the garnishment has started, but it will take longer to address. A consumer protection attorney can help you with the process.
Objections you can make include that you are exempt, you don’t owe the debt, you were served improperly, or the debt was discharged in bankruptcy. In California, you can also object and claim an exemption if you need the money to support others or for necessary living expenses. To request exemptions and object, carefully follow the employee instructions that came in the garnishment packet. You’ll have to fill out the claim of exemption form and financial statement and file it with the sheriff’s office. Make a copy to file and keep the original. You can call the sheriff’s office or court clerk for information on your case, but they can’t give you legal advice.
Step 5: The court holds a hearing on your objections and exemptions.
There will be a court hearing to review your objections and exemptions, and the creditor will have 10 days to object to your objections or exemptions. The court’s decision after this hearing determines whether your wages will be garnished for the creditor’s requested amount, garnished for less based on your exemptions and hardship, or not garnished at all. If you don’t show up in court, the creditor will have the right to garnish based on a default judgment, and you’ll have to take different steps to object in the future.
Step 6: The garnishment stops or continues.
If the court finds in your favor, the garnishment will stop and you will be reimbursed for withheld money. If the court finds in the creditor’s favor, the garnishment will continue until the debt is paid.
How Much of My Paycheck Can Be Taken by Wage Garnishment?
Your pay can’t be garnished for more than you owe (including fees, costs, and interest), and there are limits to how much of your paycheck a creditor can take. The formula starts with your disposable wages. That’s your wages after legally mandated deductions, such as taxes, Social Security, Medicare, and state unemployment insurance tax.
Your wages can only be garnished for whichever is less:
25% of your disposable earnings for a week, or
50% of the amount that your weekly earnings exceed 40 times the state or local minimum wage. If your weekly earnings are less than $560 (40 x $14 state minimum wage), your wages can’t be garnished at all.
For example, say your disposable income is $600 per week.
25% of $600 is $150.
40 times $14 (CA state minimum wage) is $560. $600 minus $560 is 40. 50% of 40 is $20.
So we’re comparing $150 to $20 to see which is less. Since $20 is less, that’s the maximum amount a creditor can garnish from your weekly disposable earnings.
Private student loans must follow the California wage garnishment process, but federal debts including federal student loans and back taxes follow different formulas.
How To Stop a Garnishment in California
To stop wage garnishment in California, you have a few options. You can try to negotiate your debt payments with the creditor, even while your wages are being garnished. You can also pay your debt in full or wait for the garnishment order to play out until the debt is repaid.
Another option is to file bankruptcy. Wage garnishment stops as soon as you file bankruptcy because the court issues an automatic stay, which orders creditors to stop collecting. In California, state bankruptcy exemption laws will help you protect some assets. When the bankruptcy proceeding is complete, most of your debts will be completely discharged and your wage garnishment will permanently stop. You will not owe the debt, so debt collectors can’t go after you for the money.
Talk to a bankruptcy attorney if you’re considering filing bankruptcy to stop wage garnishment. If you can’t afford an attorney, you can contact your local legal aid office or use Upsolve’s free web app to see if you qualify to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy for free without a lawyer.
Are There Any Resources for People Facing Wage Garnishment in California?
California has several resources to help you with the wage garnishment process. Here are a few organizations to start with:
Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation – Self-help information and resources for Californians dealing with wage garnishment.
Free California Law Help – Resources, advice, and contact information for California legal clinics from the Legal Aid Association of California.
San Joaquin County Self-Help Legal Clinic – A legal aid clinic serving Stockton and the surrounding community with aid in self-representation for wage garnishment actions.
Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) – More information on the wage garnishment process in California.