Wage Garnishment Laws: An Overview

Learn which creditors can garnish (take) your wages, how the process works, and more.

By , Attorney · Northwestern University School of Law

A wage garnishment is one tool that creditors use to collect debts. With a garnishment (also called wage attachment or wage withholding), the creditor sends a garnishment order (or in some instances a wage garnishment notice) to your employer. Your employer withholds a portion of your wages each pay period and sends that money directly to your creditor. Not every creditor can garnish your wages, and there are limits on how much can be taken from your paycheck.

Who Can Garnish Your Wages?

For the most part, only judgment creditors can garnish your wages. But there are a few exceptions.

Judgment Creditors

Regular creditors cannot garnish your wages without first suing you in court and obtaining a money judgment. That means that if you owe money to a credit card company, doctor, dentist, furniture company, or the like, you don't have to worry about garnishment unless those creditors sue you in court.

Creditors That Can Garnish Your Wages Without a Court Judgment

There are some creditors that may garnish your wages without a judgment. Those are:

  • collectors of federally-guaranteed student loans
  • people and agencies to whom you owe child support or alimony, and
  • taxing agencies to whom you owe back taxes (like the IRS or state taxing authority).

Although these agencies don't have to get a judgment against you, they must provide some type of notice along with time for your to object, before garnishing your wages. The type of notice and procedures for objecting varies depending on the agency involved.

How Do Wage Garnishments Work?

The judgment creditor sends the garnishment order to your employer. Your employer will then withhold a portion of your wages each pay period and send that money directly to your creditor. The garnishment will end when you have paid the entire judgment or you reach a separate settlement on the debt with the creditor. This process works similarly for creditors on student loans, child support, and back taxes.

Limits on Wage Garnishment Amounts

Federal law limits the amount that can be garnished from your paycheck each week or month. The amounts vary depending on whether the creditor is a judgment creditor, student loan collector, taxing authority, or collector of child support. State laws also limit garnishment amounts. However, states cannot allow creditors to take more than is allowed under federal law. That is, they can offer more protection to debtors, but not less.

For the specific federal garnishment limits, see Limits on Wage Garnishment Amounts.

Objecting to the Wage Garnishment

In all types of wage garnishments, you may object to the garnishment or the amount of money that is being garnished. To do so, you must file a Claim of Exemption with the court that issued the underlying garnishment.

Your Employment and Wage Garnishment

Under federal law, your employer cannot fire you because it receives a garnishment for one debt, or two or more garnishments from the same creditor. If, however, you have more than one garnishment from different creditors, federal law does not protect you. Some states offer more employment protection when it comes to garnishments.

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