Before your wages are garnished, several things must’ve happened. One, you should’ve received numerous notices in the mail from your creditors. Two, phone calls from debt collectors must’ve reached the extreme until finally, they stopped.
So, having your wages garnished should not come as a complete surprise. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t be shocked when a wage garnishment actually happens.
If your wages have been garnished, you naturally wonder if there is anything you can do to release the hold on your income. You may worry that you’ll lose your job. While your worries are understandable, in many cases they are unfounded. In fact, you may be able to have a garnishment removed altogether.
What Is Wage Garnishment?
Wage garnishment involves the seizure of a part of your paycheck before you even see any money (Nolo). In that respect, wage garnishment works like taxes. The difference is that wage garnishment serves as punishment for failure to meet a financial obligation.
In most cases, creditors must get a court order to garnish your wages. This is true for so-called unsecured debt such as credit cards. By the way, the nature of secured credit almost always prevents your wages from ever being garnished.
But for income tax debt, child support and other priority debts, creditors don’t need a court order to garnish your wages. But if you owe money on your taxes or for child support, you already know this in advance. If you make no effort to pay these kinds of financial obligations, you should not be surprised if your wages are garnished.
How Much Can Be Taken from My Paycheck?
The immediate effect of a wage garnishment is reduction in your take-home pay. How much of a reduction depends on how much you owe, the nature of your financial obligation and your income.
In all cases, wage garnishments can only be taken from what is known as disposable income – basically, your take-home pay. It is also possible to have many wage garnishments imposed against you. But even with multiple wage garnishments, you will never be deprived of your entire paycheck.
Wage garnishments for child support orders are among the harshest. They can be imposed without a court order through what is known as an administrative wage garnishment.
If you are supporting another family already, garnishments are generally limited to 50 percent of your disposable income. If you are single with no other dependents, garnishments for child support can extract up to 60 percent of your disposable income. If you’re more than 12 weeks behind on your payments, another 5 percent can be added to the wage garnishment.
Owe back taxes to the IRS or to your state or local government? Tread lightly. Garnishment amounts vary depending on your filing status, number of dependents and how much you owe. If you owe both federal and state taxes, you may be garnished by both agencies.
Falling behind on federal student loan payments can also leave you vulnerable to administrative wage garnishment. The amount of garnishment is limited to 15 percent of your disposable income or the amount of your disposable income that exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less. Private student lenders must generally seek a court order to garnish your wages.
Can I Lose My Job?
Federal law prohibits your employer from firing you on the basis of a single wage garnishment. But if more than one creditor imposes a wage garnishment or if a single creditor imposes multiple garnishments, federal protection no longer applies.
State laws protecting workers against dismissal because of wage garnishment may be stricter than those of the federal government, protecting workers that have up to 3 wage garnishments attached to their paychecks. (Department of Labor)
How Do Wage Assignments Differ from Wage Garnishments?
Wage assignments allow creditors to collect overdue payments directly from your wages without obtaining a court order. But unlike wage garnishments, you must agree to wage assignments in advance, although such agreements are frequently hidden in the fine print of an agreement. Federal law and many state laws prohibit wage assignments in most consumer contracts.
But if your contract allows you to revoke your authorization for wage assignment at will, then they are generally legal. Likewise, loans that are set up with payments taken directly from your paycheck also usually allow wage assignments. (Nolo)
Why Has My Bank Account Been Frozen?
If you are not gainfully employed, nonsecured creditors may get a court order to freeze your bank account.
But thanks to a federal law passed in 2011, exempted funds such as Social Security and disability payments that are direct deposited into your bank account are automatically tagged and cannot be garnished.
Some states such as New York also protect a total of $2,500 in bank accounts that contain exempt funds from being frozen, even if exempt funds are only a fraction of this amount. This protection does not apply to garnishments for child support payments or back taxes, and your bank account may be frozen without a court order to collect such garnishments.
Can I Get Rid of Wage Garnishment?
One certain way to get rid of a wage garnishment is by bringing your account to a current status. In most cases, that means paying off your debt in full. Some creditors may agree to a payment plan, especially if you offer to pay at least as much as the amount being deducted from your paycheck under the garnishment.
You may also file either a federal or state claim of exemption with the court. Under a claim of exemption, you must demonstrate that the garnishment prevents you from covering your basic living expenses. Be prepared to provide evidence of your income and your expenses. (Nolo)
Likewise, you may file an appeal to have the garnishment overturned. If your bank account has been frozen, you may petition to have the freeze lifted if the funds in your account are exempt funds or if the amount of money in your bank account falls under specified asset limits.
If your income tax status is head of household and you provide at least 50 percent support for a child or other eligible dependent, you may shield most or all of your income from wage garnishment. Your state’s laws may provide stronger protections against wage garnishments for heads of household. Though, you may need to file a head of household exemption to obtain that protection.
How Does Bankruptcy Affect Wage Garnishments?
Filing Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy also protects your bank account and wages from wage garnishment through the automatic stay provision. If a garnishment is already in place, filing for bankruptcy immediately releases the garnishment. You may need to inform your creditors individually to have garnishments lifted before notification is made, generally by mail. (Nolo)
Bankruptcy does not provide protection against garnishments for child support or alimony. If your bankruptcy is dismissed, the protection provided from the automatic stay disappears. But creditors would no longer be able to make any collection efforts against debts discharged by a bankruptcy, including most credit card debts. Any wage garnishments would be voided by the discharge as well. (CreditCards)
Can I Prevent Wage Garnishment?
The best way to deal with wage garnishment is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The IRS is often willing to negotiate payment agreements that allow you to avoid it altogether.
If you have previously maintained a good payment record, other creditors will also often work with you to restore your account to current status without resorting to wage garnishment.