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 Rhode Island regulates wage garnishments.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated October 21, 2021
If you are a Rhode Island resident and a creditor has gotten a money judgment against you, you might be at risk of wage garnishment. Wage garnishment is a process creditors use to collect unpaid debts by taking money directly from your paycheck. Most creditors must first get a court order to do this. The amount of your paycheck creditors can take in the Ocean State is limited, and not all income can be garnished. This article will help you understand what wage garnishment is, how it works in Rhode Island, and what you can do about it.
What Is Wage Garnishment?
Wage garnishment is a legal tool creditors use to collect an overdue debt by having money taken directly from your paycheck. It’s also called a wage attachment. In most cases, the creditor needs to get a judgment from the court before they can garnish your wages. Unlike when a creditor garnishes your bank account, with a wage garnishment, your creditor is limited to how much they can take. They can’t take your entire paycheck. These limits are established in state law to ensure that you have money to meet your living expenses after the wage garnishment.
Who Can Garnish My Wages in Rhode Island?
Creditors, debt collectors, and debt buyers who are not paid can sue you to recover the money you owe through a wage garnishment. If you don’t pay your credit card bill, medical bills, or private student loan payments, the creditor may start a lawsuit against you. If they win, the court will give them a money judgment, which allows them to proceed with the garnishment process.
Some creditors don’t need to get a court judgment to garnish your wages. This is the case for court-ordered child support payments, child support arrears, defaulted federal student loans, and unpaid income taxes. These special debts have their own wage garnishment laws. This article focuses on wage garnishments for consumer debts, like credit card debt or unpaid medical bills, that require a court judgment.
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Rhode Island Wage Garnishment Process
Creditors must follow several steps before they can garnish your wages.
1. The creditor brings a debt collection lawsuit.
Wage garnishment starts with a lawsuit. If a creditor sues you, you’ll receive a summons and a complaint. You’re required to answer or respond to these. Answering the lawsuit allows you to tell your side of the story. Failing to answer will likely result in the court issuing a default judgment against you. A judgment is a court order for you to pay a certain amount of money to the creditor. If you don’t or can’t pay the judgment, the judgment creditor can seek a wage garnishment order to address the judgment under Rhode Island garnishment laws.
2. You can raise defenses to the lawsuit.
You may be able to avoid wage garnishment by defending yourself in the collections lawsuit. One defense is that the statute of limitations to collect the debt has lapsed. This is the time period the creditor has to start the debt collections lawsuit. In Rhode Island, creditors typically have 10 years to sue for an unpaid debt. After they get a judgment, they have 20 years to enforce the judgment. So, they have 20 years to garnish your wages from the date they get the judgment. This is a lot longer than in most states.
3. The creditor serves your employer with paperwork.
At this point, the wage garnishment process focuses on the creditor and your employer who’s called the garnishee. The judgment creditor will have to complete a Notice and Motion To Attach Wages, prove that it has an unpaid judgment, and show that it needs a garnishment order to satisfy the judgment. The creditor must also serve you with this notice.
The clerk of court will also send a Notice to Employer, which advises your employer that a creditor is seeking to garnish your wages and that the employer is required to withhold your wages once they receive a Writ of Attachment from the court.
4. You can file an objection or exemption to the garnishment. A hearing will be held.
This is when you’ll want to file an objection if you have one or let the court know about exemptions you qualify for. If you file this, the court will hold a hearing. Rhode Island laws exempt many forms of income, including public assistance.
Some objections to the wage garnishment you can raise are:
You are receiving some form of public assistance in addition to wages;
You received some form of public assistance within the last year;
You aren’t presently working and have no garnishable wages.
If you are objecting to the wage attachment, you need to complete a Defendant/Debtor’s Objection to Wage Attachment form and file it with the clerk of court. File the objection on or before the objection date listed on the creditor’s Notice and Motion to Attach Wages. You also need to send a copy of the objection to the creditor and its attorney.
5. The wage garnishment can begin.
If you don’t file an objection or if the court doesn’t find in your favor at the objection hearing, the creditor will be allowed to proceed with the wage garnishment. Your employer will be required to start garnishing your wages immediately once they receive a Writ of Attachment.
Rhode Island law allows for a continuing withholding of your wages. This means your wages can be continually garnished until the judgment is fully paid. Your employer will be required to notify the court and the creditor’s attorney by affidavit of what funds are being withheld each payday from your disposable earnings.
How Much of My Paycheck Can Be Taken by Wage Garnishment?
That amount of your wages that can be garnished each paycheck is limited by state and federal law. In total, creditors can’t garnish more than the amount of the judgment plus fees and costs. Also, creditors can only garnish your disposable income. This is the amount that remains in your paycheck after the legally required deductions are taken out. These deductions include Social Security, federal and state income taxes, and unemployment insurance.
Under federal law, the maximum amount that can be garnished from your wages is the lesser of:
25% of your weekly disposable earnings, or
The amount that your weekly disposable income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage. Since the federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, this amounts to $217.50 a week.
But Rhode Island state law adds some additional protections:
If your weekly disposable earnings are less than 40 times the federal minimum hourly wage — that’s $290 or less — the creditor can only garnish the amount greater than 30 times the federal minimum hourly wage, which is $217.50.
If your disposable weekly earnings are greater than 40 times the minimum wage ($290), the first 75% is exempt.
This might sound complicated, so here are a few examples of how these exemptions work.
If your weekly disposable income is less than $217.50, all your income is exempt from wage garnishment.
If your weekly disposable income is $250 per week, you’d compare 25% of your income ($62.50) to how much your income exceeds $217.50 or 30 times the federal minimum wage ($32.50). Since $32.50 is less than $62.50, creditors can only garnish up to $32.50 a week.
If you earn more than $290 per week (40 times the federal minimum hourly wage), the first 75% of your income is exempt. If you made $400 a week, $300 of that would be safe from garnishment.
In addition to those exemptions, Rhode Island law exempts individuals who’ve received public assistance within the last year or who are currently receiving public assistance. State and federal law exempt many other income sources from garnishment, including:
Social Security benefits (in most cases);
State and municipal workers’ pensions;
Public assistance including workers' compensation; unemployment benefits; aid to families with dependent children; aid to the blind, aged, and disabled; temporary disability; and certain veteran's benefits; and
Private retirement benefits.
How To Stop a Garnishment in Rhode Island
There are a few ways to stop wage garnishment in Rhode Island. If you’re entitled to one, you can claim an exemption. You can also pay the judgment amount in a lump sum or by trying to negotiate a settlement with the creditor (either a lump sum or a payment plan). You could also let the garnishment play out until the debt is repaid.
Bankruptcy is also a great tool to use to get debt relief. When you file bankruptcy, the court will issue an automatic stay that stops most collection activities, including wage garnishments. Once your debts are discharged in bankruptcy, creditors can no longer pursue you for them via wage garnishment or any other means. There are state exemptions that will protect many of your assets. You can contact an attorney to discuss your options or use Upsolve’s free tool to see if you qualify to file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case without an attorney.
Are There Any Resources for People Facing Wage Garnishments in Rhode Island?
If you’re facing wage garnishment, there are many resources and legal aid organizations that can provide you with guidance, assistance, and answers to FAQs, including:
Rhode Island Legal Services provides free legal services for low-income individuals and information on consumer debt laws.
HelpRILaw.org provides legal help for low-income individuals in Rhode Island.
The Rhode Island Bar Association has information on pro bono (free) legal services and other community resources.