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 Massachusetts regulates wage garnishments.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated October 21, 2021
Having your wages garnished can be a nerve-racking experience. If you’re already struggling to pay your bills or provide for your family, losing some of your income can cause substantial hardship. That said, it’s possible to reduce or stop a wage garnishment, or as it’s known in Massachusetts, a wage attachment. And creditors must comply with the state’s limits on income withholding. This article covers how wage garnishment works in the Bay State, the rules for how much of your check can be garnished, and what to do if you’re facing garnishment.
What Is Wage Garnishment?
If you have unpaid medical bills, credit card balances, or other debts, your creditors may be able to garnish your wages to collect what you owe by getting a court order. When a creditor gets a wage attachment, a judge orders your employer to take some money out of your check each pay period and send that money to the creditor. Massachusetts laws, along with some federal laws, limit how much of each paycheck your employer must withhold.
Who Can Garnish My Wages in Massachusetts?
In almost all cases, a creditor seeking to garnish your wages must have a valid judgment against you from a Massachusetts court. To get a judgment against you, a creditor, debt buyer, or debt collector must file a lawsuit against you in court and serve you with notice. Then, the creditor must attend the court date and present enough evidence to prove that you owe the creditor money. If you don’t go to court, the creditor can get a default judgment against you.
Massachusetts law imposes especially strict requirements on the documents and other proof creditors need to have to win a judgment in a consumer debt collection case. Old debts that have been bought, sold, and assigned by many bill collectors aren’t likely to result in a Massachusetts judgment. That said, any creditor who successfully wins a judgment against you can attach your wages to pay the judgment debt.
A very limited handful of creditors can garnish your wages in Massachusetts without getting a judgment. A wage attachment that isn’t based on a judgment is called an administrative attachment. Administrative attachments are only available for tax debts owed to the IRS or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, defaulted federal student loans, or domestic support obligations such as alimony or child support payments. The procedure, rules, and limits are different for administrative attachments than for ordinary wage garnishments. This article focuses on the standard wage garnishment laws that apply to most creditors.
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Massachusetts Wage Garnishment Process
Under Massachusetts law, the path a creditor must take to garnish your wages is much more complicated than in most other states. After getting a judgment against you for an unpaid debt, the creditor must then file a second lawsuit called a supplementary process action. In the supplementary process action, the creditor must prove that you can afford to pay the judgment debt and that garnishing your wages is likely to result in the debt being paid. The creditor must serve you with notice of the supplementary action and the hearing date.
If you have an objection to the wage attachment, you must file an answer with the court and appear at the hearing on the supplementary action. At this point, you can’t dispute the original judgment debt. You can object on the basis that you’ve already paid the judgment or that the paperwork contains important mistakes. You can also argue that you can’t afford to pay the judgment debt through a wage attachment. Finally, you can also claim any exemptions that apply.
Certain kinds of income, such as Social Security income or unemployment benefits, are exempt from being garnished under state and federal laws. Massachusetts exemption laws also protect some types of property from being attached by creditors, up to a set amount of money. If you believe you’re entitled to any exemptions, you must claim them at or before the attachment hearing.
If the creditor can prove that you’re able to pay the judgment debt through wage attachment, the judge enters an order in the supplementary action allowing the creditor to collect the judgment by attaching your wages.
After the judge enters a wage attachment order, the clerk issues a summons to your employer, notifying your employer of the judgment and the attachment order. In Massachusetts law, your employer is called the trustee. The creditor also sends you a copy of the summons, attachment order, and other paperwork. Your employer has 20 days after receiving the paperwork to file an answer with the court confirming your employment status and other information.
Each writ of attachment lasts for 30 days. The creditor can renew the attachment by requesting another attachment order from the court. The creditor may renew the attachment every 30 days until the judgment debt is paid.
How Much of My Paycheck Can Be Taken by Wage Garnishment?
Massachusetts law limits how much money your employer must withhold from your paycheck for a wage attachment. These state laws provide you more protection than the federal garnishment rules, which are based on the federal minimum wage.
For each workweek, your employer must deduct whichever of these amounts is less:
15% of your gross wages (your pay before any taxes or other deductions are taken out); or
Your weekly disposable income minus $675 ($675 equals the current Massachusetts hourly minimum wage, $13.50, multiplied by 50).
To calculate your weekly disposable earnings, start with your gross pay for one week. Then, subtract:
Federal, state, and local income taxes;
Payroll taxes, Social Security, and Medicare deductions;
Mandatory contributions to a state pension or retirement system, such as the Massachusetts State Employee Retirement System (MSERS), the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System (MTRS), or another public retirement system;
Massachusetts unemployment insurance taxes;
Deductions required by your employer, such as mandatory uniform fees; and
Any court-ordered child support, alimony, or domestic maintenance payments.
Deductions for medical or other insurance that aren’t a part of a domestic support order;
Retirement contributions to any 401(k), IRA, or other retirement, pension, or savings plan that’s not part of a state pension or retirement system — even if your employer requires you to contribute;
Union dues or board membership fees; or
Any other payroll deduction, such as cafeteria fees, legal plan fees, or flex spending accounts.
The overall amount garnished from your pay can’t be more than the total judgment debt, plus court costs and post-judgment interest.
How To Stop a Garnishment in Massachusetts
The most obvious way to stop wage garnishment is to pay the underlying judgment debt. If you have access to funds or can raise the money quickly, you can pay the debt before the wage attachment begins. You can also pay off the debt by allowing the attachment process to continue until the judgment debt is paid.
Filing bankruptcy is the other way to stop a garnishment. The bankruptcy code’s automatic stay provision stops all collection action, including garnishments, as of the moment you file bankruptcy. In a bankruptcy case, you can usually discharge, or wipe out, the entire debt that gave rise to the judgment and garnishment. Upsolve’s free tool can help you decide whether bankruptcy is a good choice for you. If you qualify, Upsolve can help you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy for free. If not, you can still consult with a Massachusetts bankruptcy attorney, or you may be able to complete the forms and file bankruptcy on your own.
Are There Any Resources for People Facing Wage Garnishment in Massachusetts?
If you’re not sure how to proceed, you may want to meet with a Massachusetts attorney to discuss your options in more detail. If you can’t afford to hire a lawyer — a common issue when a creditor is garnishing your pay — consider taking advantage of some of the Bay State’s legal aid options. These organizations can often provide legal advice or representation for little-to-no cost. These are some of the legal aid resources available in Massachusetts: