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 Washington regulates wage garnishments.
Written by Upsolve Team.
Updated January 5, 2022
If you work in Washington state and have unpaid debt you’re at risk of having your wages garnished or taken directly from your paycheck. Wage garnishment makes it hard to pay your other bills and can spiral you into more debt. In this article, you’ll find information on how wage garnishment works in Washington state. We’ll also explain how to stop wage garnishment and how much of your wages can be garnished in the Evergreen State.
What Is Wage Garnishment?
Wage garnishment is a legal procedure used to collect past-due debt from a wage earner’s paycheck. The money creditors keep from your paycheck is referred to as the wage garnishment or wage attachment. In Washington state, creditors can’t garnish your wages to collect past-due consumer debt without a court order and judgment. Consumer debt includes credit cards, personal loans, payday loans, car loans, mortgages, rent, and medical debt. Government debt is treated differently.
Federal laws and Washington state laws govern wage garnishment. State law limits how much money creditors can take from your paycheck. Some rules are covered in the federal Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA) and others are covered in Washington state laws referred to in Title 6 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW).
Who Can Garnish My Wages in Washington?
Your wages in Washington can be garnished by creditors, debt buyers, and debt collectors. Several different creditors can garnish your wages at the same time, but there are limits to how much money they can keep from your paycheck.
In special cases, your paycheck can be garnished without a court order. This is true of government debt. This includes federal government student loans, back taxes, and child support. Wages can also be garnished for spousal support orders without a lawsuit.
This article focuses on consumer debt and wage garnishments for wage earners in the state of Washington.
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Washington Wage Garnishment Process
To get a wage garnishment, a creditor must first go to court and get a court order and judgment. This is true for wage and bank account garnishments. This is done by filing a summons and complaint with the court and serving the debtor with the summons and complaint. This begins the lawsuit.
The Washington State Court’s Civil Rules (CR) and state laws in Title 4 outline the procedures creditors must follow. The creditor will be referred to as the plaintiff or judgment creditor, and the debtor will be referred to as the defendant or judgment debtor.
1. The lawsuit begins, and you have 20 days to respond.
If you are served with a summons and complaint in Washington, you have 20 days to respond. This includes filing your response with the court clerk and serving a copy to the creditor. This is when you’ll want to raise any objections or defenses you have, including:
You don’t owe the debt;
The debt amount is incorrect;
The debt should have been discharged in bankruptcy;
Your wages or income is exempt from garnishment;
You weren’t served according to procedures;
The creditor doesn’t have a right to sue you; or
The statute of limitations for the debt has passed.
If you receive a summons and complaint, it’s wise to talk to an attorney about your rights.
2. A court date is assigned.
The summons and complaint will include instructions about how and when to respond. It will also list a court date to appear. If you don’t respond to the summons and complaint and don’t show up in court, the creditor will likely win a default judgment and be permitted to go forward with the wage garnishment process.
On the court date, the judge will review both your and the creditor’s claims, receipts, and records. Then, based on federal and state laws, they’ll decide whether the creditor can go forward with the judgment. If the creditor’s request for a judgment is valid, the judge will enter an order and judgment.
3. The Writ of Garnishment is filed and served.
The creditor will then apply for a Writ of Garnishment. Writ simply means a written command. The judgment grants permission for the creditor to garnish wages. A Writ of Garnishment is an order that makes the actual garnishment happen. In Washington, the creditor must wait 10 days in superior court (Rule CR 62) and 30 days in district court before they can serve the Writ of Garnishment. The creditor will need to apply for and serve a new writ every 60 days until the debt is paid, but they don’t need to file a new lawsuit every 60 days.
4. The Notice of Exemption must be returned.
In Washington state, the creditor must serve the employer and defendant with the Writ of Garnishment. The defendant must also receive a copy of the order and Notice of Exemption claim form. The Notice of Exemption claim form must be returned within 28 days from the date on the document. Follow the instructions carefully. There is a box to check to claim the maximum allowable exemption. Filling out this form properly will help protect some of your wages.
5. Your employer is ordered to garnish your paycheck.
Once the creditor serves both you and your employer, the employer must answer the Writ of Garnishment and start withholding your wages. The employer is referred to as the garnishee in wage garnishment proceedings.
How Much of My Paycheck Can Be Taken by Wage Garnishment?
Federal law and Washington state law limit how much creditors can take from your paycheck. Wage garnishments are taken out of your disposable income, which is the amount left in your paycheck after mandatory deductions are taken out. Also, creditors can never garnish your check for more than the judgment amount. The judgment amount will include the past-due debt, court costs, fees, and interest.
Washington law RCW 6.27.150 limits how much of your wages can be garnished to repay consumer debt. Whichever of the following is higher is exempt from garnishment each week:
80% of your weekly disposable earnings; or
35 times the state minimum hourly wage. The current minimum wage is $13.69/hour, and 35 times that is $479.15.
Let’s say your weekly wage is $500. If so, 80% of $500 is $400. But since $479.15 — 35 times the state minimum hourly wage — is higher than $400, $479.15 of your wages are protected from garnishment. This means creditors can garnish up to $20.85 a week ($500 - $479.15). Under federal law, disposable income less than $217.50 per week cannot be garnished. If you make $217.50 or less per week your total wages are exempt from garnishment.
These limits are for wage garnishments for consumer-related debt. There are different rules for debt related to alimony, child support, and private student loan debt.
How To Stop a Garnishment in Washington
There are a few ways to stop a wage garnishment. First, you can pay off the debt, either in a lump sum or by letting the garnishment run its course. You can also try to renegotiate your debt.
If you can’t pay off your debt, you can consider filing bankruptcy to stop the garnishment. When you file bankruptcy, the court issues an automatic stay. This requires all collection activity, including garnishment, to stop immediately. Washington state exemptions can help protect your property when you file bankruptcy. You can choose to use federal or state exemptions, whichever works best for you.
When the bankruptcy process is complete, the debt your wages are being garnished for could be completely discharged. This means that you won’t owe the debt, so the wage garnishment must stop. It also means your wages can’t be garnished for the same debt ever again.
A bankruptcy attorney can help you with the bankruptcy process. If you can’t afford an attorney, you can reach out to your local legal aid office to see if they can help. You can also use Upsolve’s online bankruptcy app to help you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy for free without an attorney.
Are There Any Resources for People Facing Wage Garnishment in Washington?
There are hotlines, online libraries, and legal clinics to help you with wage garnishment in Washington. Here are some resources to get you started:
CLEAR toll-free legal help hotline: A list of phone numbers low-income Washingtonians can use to ask questions about legal issues and to get assistance with legal forms.
Washington Bar Association Legal Help: Resources to help you find free legal help from the Washington State Bar Association.
King County Washington Free Legal Assistance: Free consultation in King County provided by the King County Bar Association Pro Bono Services department.
Washington Court Garnishment Forms: Download forms for Washington state garnishment procedures.
Northwest Justice Project: Consumer protection and other types of civil legal assistance for low-income individuals.
List of 17 Legal Aid Offices in Washington: Offices for legal services and legal advice — a resource from the Northwest Justice Project.
WashingtonLawHelp.org: Information on wage garnishment law and examples of exemptions, a library of information on debt collection, laws, and self-help forms.