Wage garnishment is a common problem for millions of Americans. It can be deflating to have your wages garnished. But you do have options to protect yourself.
Written by Attorney Andrea Wimmer.
Updated October 29, 2021
Having your wages garnished can be overwhelming and scary. There are some things you can do to stop a wage garnishment. Let’s start with the basics first.
What Is Wage Garnishment?
A wage garnishment is a debt collection tool. If a garnishment order is in effect, the department that processes your paycheck has to withhold a certain amount of money from your paycheck. This amount is sent to the creditor to reduce the total balance owed.
How Much of My Wages Can Be Garnished?
There’s a limit to how much creditors can garnish from your wages. Under federal law, the garnishment amount can’t be more than 25% of your disposable income or the amount by which your take-home exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage (currently set to $7.25/hour), whichever is less.
Creditors and collection agencies can’t take money out of your bank account with a wage garnishment order. State law and exemptions determine what steps a creditor has to take to pursue other collection efforts and exemptions limit how much they can take.
How Does Wage Garnishment Happen?
The garnishment process starts when a creditor—like a credit card company or bank—sues you for nonpayment. If they win, they’ll get a judgment against you. The judgment is what gives the judgment creditor the ability to ask for a court order to garnish your wages. The wage garnishment order is what gets sent to your employer.
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How To Stop a Wage Garnishment Before It Starts
If you’re having a hard time keeping up with your payments, consider signing up for a free credit counseling session with a nonprofit near you. After doing a free evaluation of your financial situation, they’ll be able to make some recommendations on how to deal with debt collectors. They may even be able to help you put together a repayment plan to offer to the bank that’s suing you.
If you do (ignore the lawsuit, that is), it will just speed up the inevitable. If the creditor doesn’t hear from you at all, they’re able to ask the court to grant them a judgment against you by default. That’s called a default judgment, and it’s a bit like losing a softball match by forfeiture because your team didn’t show up.
Exception: Student Loan Debt And Tax Debt
Federal law provides that your wages (and your social security benefits) can be garnished for back taxes and student loan debt. This means the U.S. Department of Education and the IRS can garnish your wages without first filing a lawsuit or getting a judgment. In fact, they can even garnish your tax refund without a garnishment order.
(1) Negotiate a Payment Plan With Your Creditor
If you’re not able to pay off the full balance owed in a lump sum payment, now is the time to negotiate a payment plan. At this point, you’ll likely be dealing with a law firm. Let them know what you can afford to pay every month or how much you can afford to pay for a debt settlement. They may require you to complete a questionnaire with information about your financial situation, ask you to submit certain documents to their office, or both.
If you’re able to agree on a payment plan, you’ve successfully stopped a garnishment before it started!
While you can technically try to negotiate a debt settlement or payment plan even after a court order to garnish your wages has been entered, it’s a little harder. The creditor has a court order that says they get a certain amount of money from your wages every pay period.
If your monthly income and living expenses don’t allow you to offer a payment plan that pays at least as much as what they’re getting through the garnishment order, the creditor is not likely to agree to it.
(2) Challenge the Garnishment
Once the judgment is entered, and the court orders a garnishment, you’ll receive a copy of the order at the time it’s sent to your employer. Along with this notice, you’ll receive instructions on how to challenge the garnishment order in court. If you plan on doing this, make sure you act quickly.
Depending on your state, you may have as little as 5 business days to file a claim of exemption or similar paperwork. Once that time has passed, your employer (or their payroll company) won’t have a choice but to garnish a part of your paycheck.
(3) Stop Wage Garnishment With Bankruptcy
If you’re buried in debt and don’t have enough disposable income to pay your basic living expenses, stopping the wage garnishment may only be temporary relief. If you’re struggling with more than one debt and have multiple creditors filing lawsuits against you, you may need a completely fresh start. In that case, consider the pros and cons of Chapter 7 bankruptcy. If it makes sense for you to file bankruptcy, know that the wage garnishment has to stop once your case has been filed.
The creditor will receive notice that you’re protected by the automatic stay. That’s just like a court order and they’ll have to stop garnishment shortly after you file. Just follow these steps after filing Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy to make sure it really stops.
If the debt for which you are being garnished is dischargeable like a credit card debt or medical bills, it’ll be erased by the bankruptcy filing, which will end the garnishment permanently.
Exception: Domestic Support Obligations
Even though the automatic stay stops most collection activities, there are a few exceptions. One of these exceptions is wage garnishment for child support and alimony. Garnishment orders for this type of debt survive the bankruptcy filing.
If you can, avoid having a default judgment entered against you. That’s the best way to buy some time and possibly negotiate a repayment plan with the creditor. If the wage garnishment has already started, you can try to challenge the judgment or negotiate with the creditor. But, they’re in the driver’s seat, and if they don’t allow you to stop a garnishment by agreeing to make voluntary payments, you can’t really force them to. You can, however, stop the garnishment by filing a bankruptcy case.
Bankruptcy is not right for everyone and every situation, but if your wages are getting garnished, it may be the best way to get back on track financially. Keep reading to learn more about personal bankruptcy and other debt relief options and consider scheduling a free consultation with a bankruptcy attorney in your area.
Upsolve’s free tool may be a good alternative if you’re ready to file but can’t afford to hire a bankruptcy attorney. It helps you file your Chapter 7 bankruptcy case on your own by walking through all the questions you’ll need to answer to complete your bankruptcy forms. For more on how to stop wage garnishment, check out the video below ⬇️.
- U.S. Department of Labor. (2019, October). The Federal Wage Garnishment Law, Consumer Credit Protection Act’s Title III (CCPA). Fact Sheet #30. Retrieved October 5, 2020, from https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fact-sheets/30-cppa#