Wage garnishment is a way for debt collectors to take money directly from your paycheck. In California, your income level and amount of debt you have can determine how much of your wages can be garnished.
Written by Kristin Turner, Harvard Law Grad.
Updated December 1, 2020
Wage garnishment is a tool that debt collectors use to try and get back money they're owed by taking money directly from your paycheck. If you're in debt, you may be able to use bankruptcy as a way to deal with wage garnishment in the state of California.
Bankruptcy can be a helpful tool in dealing with wage garnishment, especially in California. Bankruptcy has the advantage of putting an immediate stay on wage garnishment. As soon as you file for bankruptcy your wage garnishment is put on hold.
In some situations you may even be able to recover some past wages that have already been garnished.
How wage garnishment works varies by state. The rules that decide how wage garnishment works are determined by individual states and the federal government. This article will explain how wage garnishment works in California.
What is Wage Garnishment?
Wage garnishment happens when a court issues an order requiring your employer to withhold a portion of your paycheck and to send it directly to a creditor that you owe. Generally, when your wages are garnished, money is taken out of your paycheck automatically by your employer.
Wage garnishment works a lot like like taxes and social security where your employer will take out that money before you get your paycheck. Wage garnishment is a way for creditors to take your money directly from your paycheck.
If you're employed, a creditor can try and garnish your wages in order to collect the money you owe them. In order for your wages to be garnished, a creditor has to file an “income execution form” and get it signed by the county clerk. You may be able to challenge this action depending on your specific circumstances.
In general, your paycheck continues to be garnished until the debt is paid off in full or otherwise resolved, such as through bankruptcy. Depending on how much you owe that means that your wages could be garnished for a long time. If you want to stop having your wages garnished then Chapter 7 bankruptcy might be a useful way to solve your problem.
Wage Garnishment in California
How wage garnishment works is decided by state and federal law.
The specifics on how wage garnishment works in California depends on your individual circumstances. The kind of debt you have and your income both matter in determining how wage garnishment will work for you in California.
In California, certain kinds of debt can lead to higher percentages of money being taken out of your paycheck. For instance, if you owe money for child support in California, you're generally not protected by the limits on wage garnishment. Similarly, there are special rules governing how student loans and tax debt work.
If you are trying to deal with wage garnishment in California you should check what kind of debt you have as there may be special rules for your unique situation.
People of certain income levels can't have their wages garnished in California. There are limits on how much of your wages can be garnished. Wage garnishment has limits designed to make sure that you can still pay for necessities like food and housing.
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When can Wages be Garnished in California
In order for your wages to be garnished in California your creditor will have to file a “writ of execution” with the court. This starts a legal process where you can challenge having your wages garnished if you qualify for a “claim of exemption.”
These exemptions include a certain portion of your wages. Only a certain amount of your wages can be garnished in California every week. Your wages can only be garnished up to a certain amount.
California provides greater protection for you than federal law does based on the state’s limits on how much of your wages can be garnished.
In California that means your wages can only be garnished up to the lesser of:
25% of your disposable income (the money you take home after taxes and social security), or
the amount of your disposable income that exceeds forty times the minimum wage.
There are many online resources such as this calculator that you can use to estimate how much you could owe do to wage garnishment in California.
How to Stop Wage Garnishment In California
There are three main ways you can stop wage garnishment in California.
First, you can talk with your creditor to try and negotiate an alternative arrangement. Sometimes creditors are open to one time payments or settlements instead of wage garnishments.
Second, you can file a “claim of exemption” with the court. You will have to show that your income is exempt from wage garnishment in California. That means you will need to show that wage garnishment would interfere with your basic necessities like food and shelter.
Exemption forms for wage garnishment in California are available online. You will need to provide additional financial documents in order to proceed with challenging wage garnishment in California.
If you try this second option, your creditor will have an opportunity to respond. You may need to provide documents to prove that you qualify. If you're thinking about this option you contacting a California attorney may be helpful in navigating this process.
Third, you can file for bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy in California puts an immediate stay on wage garnishment. That means while your bankruptcy is going on wage garnishment will stop.
Dealing with Wage Garnishment in California
If you're dealing with wage garnishment in California you should try and find the best option for your unique situation.
One way to deal with wage garnishment in California is to talk to try and work out an arrangement with the creditor who obtained a judgment against you. You may be able to negotiate with them to try and find another arrangement besides wage garnishment.
Bankruptcy is another way that you may be able to deal with wage garnishment. When you file for bankruptcy most kinds of wage garnishments will stop. This may give you the time to solve the rest of your debt problems.
There are many ways to file for bankruptcy including hiring an attorney or filing for bankruptcy yourself.
Even if you can't afford an attorney, there are services that may help you deal with wage garnishment in California.
There are non-profit legal aid organizations in California that help low-income individuals struggling with a wage garnishment. If you're looking to file bankruptcy on your own, check out Upsolve's free filing tool.
Upsolve is a nonprofit founded out of Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab with a mission of expanding access to low-income who need a fresh start. Upsolve is funded by the federal government (the Legal Services Corporation), and leading philanthropists like Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google. Here is a video from our founders.
Upsolve empowers low-income users who don't own real estate and want to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy to complete their bankruptcy forms.
If you have defaulted on your debts your wages may be garnished in California. Your income and the kind of debt you have will determine the specifics on how much of your wages can be garnished.
If your wages are being garnished there is still hope. There are free tools such as Upsolve, a free bankruptcy legal aid nonprofit, that provides a free filing tool to help Californians file bankruptcy without a lawyer.