We Know: How Garnishment Works

What is garnishment?

Garnishment occurs when a court judgment allows the plaintiff (the debtor) to collect monetary payment from the defendant (person who incurred the debt and was unable to pay). The most popular form of garnishment is wage garnishment, where a person's assets or earnings are taken by court order to pay an outstanding debt or child support.

How does garnishment work?

Most wage garnishments must begin with a court judgment, unless the debt is incurred against a government agency or relates to child support. The process by which to obtain an order of garnishment is:

  • The creditor sues the individual in court and wins the judgment against the individual.
    • Government agencies do not need to sue in order to collect; the agency must notify the individual that garnishment will occur.
  • The individual is provided an opportunity to respond to the judgment by the court.
  • If the response is not sufficient to waive garnishment proceedings, the court then notifies the individual's employer of the intent to garnish.
  • The employer is issued a period in which to respond and initiate the garnishment.
  • As stated by Federal Law (Title III from the Consumer Credit Protection Act), an individual may not be released from employment once earnings are subject to garnishment.
  • The individual may obtain representation from a lawyer to prevent the garnishment, or talk to the creditors to reach a settlement.
  • Garnishment will not occur unless there is a failure by the debtor to pay the debt.

Can somebody garnish you without suing?

In most cases, a creditor cannot garnish an individual's wages without a court judgment. Government agencies, however, may garnish wages for individuals who fail to pay a debt or pay child support.

How much is garnished?

Federal law mandates that up to 25% of wages may be garnished, provided that earnings reach a minimum. Disposable income (wages after taxes) are garnished. For garnishments due to a failure to pay child support, up to 50% of an individual's disposable income may be taken, possibly 60% for those who made no attempts to fulfill child support agreements.

What can be garnished?

Wages are normally the first items to be garnished. Creditors can also serve court papers on anybody that owes that individual money. Bank accounts are seized and frozen if wage garnishment is insufficient to adequately resolve the debt.

Can I stop a garnishment?

Certain wage garnishment exemptions exist. In order to qualify for exemption, individuals must meet the following requirements:

  • Have low income and own very little property.
  • According to Federal Law, if money in a bank account belongs to an exempt status, such as Social Security, SSI, veteran's benefits, civil service retirement pensions.
  • Judgment has provisions for exemptions.

Other ways to avoid garnishment include filing bankruptcy or forming an agreement with a creditor to dissolve the court judgment. Some states don't allow garnishments unless they relate to tax, child support, or federally subsidized student loans or as restitution for crimes committed. States that don't allow garnishment include North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas.

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