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Wage Garnishment In California

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In a Nutshell

California’s wage garnishment laws are much like those in other states. But, California has special rules for certain kinds of debt. For example, all child support payments in California automatically come with a wage garnishment order. It is important to know California’s wage garnishment rules and your options for dealing with having your wages garnished if you’re a California resident. This article will address both the rules and your options.

Written by the Upsolve Team.  Reviewed by Attorney Andrea Wimmer
Updated August 12, 2021


California’s wage garnishment laws are much like those in other states. The state’s process for garnishing wages is also similar to those used elsewhere in the United States. But, California has special rules for certain kinds of debt. For example, all child support payments in California automatically come with a wage garnishment order. It is important to know California’s wage garnishment rules and your options for dealing with having your wages garnished if you’re a California resident. This article will address both the rules and your options.

California Wage Garnishment Rules

California’s wage garnishment law and process is like most other states. For example, most creditors are required to go to court to garnish your wages. If you don’t pay your debts, a creditor in California can go to court to ask for a judgment against you. Once the creditor receives the judgment, they can ask the judge for a document known as a withholding or garnishment order. Just like it sounds, an order means that someone will be required to do something.  

The creditor can take this garnishment order to most counties in California to ask the levying officer—namely the county sheriff—to deliver an earnings withholding order to your employer. The sheriff in Los Angeles County and some other counties in California will not deliver the earnings withholding order directly to your employer. The sheriff will open a wage garnishment file in Los Angeles County, but the creditor will have to hire a private process server to deliver the garnishment order to your employer. 

Once your employer receives the earnings withholding order, California law determines how much income can be garnished from your paycheck. In the state of California, the creditor can withhold whichever is the lesser of 25% of your income or 50% of the amount by which your weekly disposable income exceeds 40 times the minimum wage. Certain California jurisdictions, such as San Jose and Los Angeles, have higher minimum wages than the state minimum wage, so the calculation will depend on where you work in the state. 

If you receive a summons, don’t ignore it! A summons, also called a complaint, is a legal document that contains statements made by your creditor to show that you owe them money. In other words, your creditor is making an official complaint to the court that you have not paid your debt as agreed. 

Once your creditor files this legal document in court, you will receive a copy and have a specific number of days to answer the summons so you can tell your side of the story about the debt. You typically have 30 days to answer a summons from the time you receive it. You should always read the summons very carefully as the creditor may have made some mistakes regarding the amount of debt you owe and even if the debt is yours. By answering the summons, you can challenge any errors stated.    

Certain Types Of Income Are Exempt From Wage Garnishment In California

Certain types of income cannot be garnished because of federal and state law. Income that is exempted from garnishment includes:

  • Social Security 

  • Supplemental Security Income

  • Retirement 

  • Workers’ compensation

If you have a disability and all your income is from Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits, your wages can’t be garnished. As the person responding to the summons—formally called a judgment debtor—you can file paperwork in court known as a claim of exemption. This document allows you to show the court that some or all of your income is exempt or protected from being garnished or withheld from your paycheck. You can file the claim of exemption form with the levying officer or the sheriff in the county where you live in California. You do not file your claim of exemption with the court that granted the judgment to your creditor.  

Special Rules in California

Specific types of debts are subject to special garnishment rules in California. For example, all child support orders come with automatic wage garnishment orders, meaning that the person seeking support can automatically apply for wage garnishment. This means if you are ordered to pay child support in California, the payment will automatically be deducted from your wages.

Certain creditors, including the IRS and the U.S. Department of Education, do not have to go to court to garnish your wages in California. If you default on your federal student loans or owe back income taxes, money can automatically be taken from your paycheck to pay these debts. You will receive a notice before the IRS or Department of Education begins withholding money from your paycheck. This is also true if you owe back state taxes to the state tax collection agency in California. The agency can garnish your wages without going to court or getting a garnishment or withholding order, but they must send notice first. 

There are some special situations under California state law that also allow for wage garnishment. For example, if you mishandle the finances for a dependent adult like an elderly parent or an adult child with disabilities, your wages can be garnished. 

If you have multiple garnishment orders against you, California has rules for prioritization. Under state law, garnishments for child support and spousal support (alimony) are given the highest priority. Then taxes and adult financial abuse orders get priority, and finally other types of debt. The most that can be taken from your paycheck is 25% of your disposable income. This is the money you have in your paycheck after federal, state, and local taxes as well as Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance are accounted for. 

Getting Rid of a Wage Garnishment

If your paycheck is being garnished, you’ll have less money to pay your living expenses like rent, groceries, and utilities. This can be very stressful, so you may want to consider debt relief options. One option is to try to negotiate a settlement with the creditor. You can contact a consumer credit counseling agency in California to help you with debt settlement.  

Another debt relief option is bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy requires that all debt collection activities, including most wage garnishments, must stop for the duration of the case. You can speak with an attorney to determine which option is best for you based on your financial situation. Upsolve has a free web tool that can help you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy without a lawyer. 

Let’s Summarize...

California wage garnishment law gives your creditors certain rights to try to get back the money you owe. These laws also give you some protection from unreasonable debt collection burdens. Under California state law, many creditors are required to go to court to get an order to withhold earnings from your paycheck. Three big exceptions are the IRS (for back taxes), the state tax agency (for unpaid state taxes), and the Department of Education (if you default on student loans). 

If you receive a summons from the court, it’s important to read it thoroughly, note any discrepancies, and answer it in a timely manner. The earnings withholding order will be delivered to your employer by the sheriff or private process server, depending on where you live in California. If you have several wage garnishments, California state law places the highest priority on child and spousal support payments. If you need help dealing with wage garnishment in California, a local lawyer can help you understand your debt relief options.



Written By:

The Upsolve Team

Upsolve is fortunate to have a remarkable team of bankruptcy attorneys, as well as finance and consumer rights professionals, as contributing writers to help us keep our content up to date, informative, and helpful to everyone.

Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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Andrea practiced exclusively as a bankruptcy attorney in consumer Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases for more than 10 years before joining Upsolve, first as a contributing writer and editor and ultimately joining the team as Managing Editor. While in private practice, Andrea handled... read more about Attorney Andrea Wimmer

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