What is Garnishment?

Malcolm Tatum

Garnishment is the process of collecting balances of past due accounts with the authorization of a court of jurisdiction located in the community where the debtor resides. Typically, this method requires notification of the debtor’s employer of the actions of the court and requiring that a portion of the employee’s salary or wages be withheld each pay period. The employer or garnishee then forwards the withheld wages to the creditor, who applies the payments to the balance due on the debtor’s account. Once the debt is retired, the garnishment is considered fulfilled and the employer is released from the responsibility of withholding funds from the employee's pay.

Garnishment can be used to pay past due accounts.
Garnishment can be used to pay past due accounts.

There are a number of different reasons why a wage garnishment may take place. One of the most common reasons for the withholding has to do with owing back taxes to a state or national government tax agency. Once the tax debt is retired, the revenue agency notifies the employer that the debt is paid in full and that the garnishing of wages may cease.

Garnishments usually are taken out of an employee's check.
Garnishments usually are taken out of an employee's check.

Another common situation in which garnishment occurs is the collection and processing of child support. While many people assume that this action occurs only when the non-custodial parent has failed to voluntarily pay court-ordered child support, many states provide the option of setting up this type of garnishment as a convenience. In this scenario, the non-custodial parent arranges through his or her employer to forward child support payments to the court of jurisdiction, which in turn documents the payment and forwards it to the custodial parent. Most systems allow both the custodial and non-custodial parent to request histories of the submitted payments once or twice each year, making it a simple task to prove that payments are being submitted according to the original child custody decree.

A student loan default is also likely to trigger a garnishment. Here, the student has failed to make payment arrangements with the lender, or has failed to honor those arrangements. The lender then takes legal action to obtain the right to garnish the former student’s wages, typically by requiring that a fixed amount be withheld each pay period. As with other garnishment situations, the lender notifies the court and the employer once the debt is settled in full.

There are other reasons why a garnishment may be initiated. Unpaid court costs will often result in the attachment of earnings, as well as collection efforts on the part of some lenders who have extended bank loans or other forms of credit to the debtor. Since laws regarding garnishment vary from one jurisdiction to another, it is important to engage legal counsel whenever this type of action is pending. In many cases, attorneys can work with creditors to arrange some alternative mode of payment that is ultimately less expensive and settles the debt to the satisfaction of everyone involved.

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