What is Wage Garnishment?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Wage garnishment refers to the removal of funds, usually by court order, from an employee’s paycheck to meet certain financial obligations. The degree to which garnishing is legal depends upon country and also in the US upon each state. While all states have provisions for certain types of wage garnishment, as for example to pay child support or taxes, only certain states allow wages to be reduced for other things like to pay money owed to lenders or money owed in civil court cases.

When funds are removed from an employee's paycheck to pay for financial obligations, it is referred to as wage garnishment.
When funds are removed from an employee's paycheck to pay for financial obligations, it is referred to as wage garnishment.

All US companies have to comply with requests for wage garnishment, and these most often come from family courts or state agencies like the Internal Revenue Service. Unpaid student loans also frequently come under this heading. Wages may be reduced by certain percentages, and in some cases by as much as half the paycheck. Instead of allowing the employee to cash a full paycheck and repay debts, usually the company that employs the person removes the appropriate amount, sends it to the right person or agency, and then makes out a check to the employee for the remainder.

Filing for bankruptcy may prevent wage garnishments.
Filing for bankruptcy may prevent wage garnishments.

Obviously avoiding garnishment is a good goal, but this may mean being able to form reasonable settlements with anyone to whom a person owes money. Common reasons why wage garnishment for things like child or spousal support occur is because the person has demonstrated in the past that they are unwilling to meet payments as ordered by the court. The court must order money be directly taken from a paycheck, since likelihood of compliance with support payments is low.

Some people perform work under the table so there is no record of being paid to avoid wage garnishment, but this practice may only lead to more fines and seizure of property.
Some people perform work under the table so there is no record of being paid to avoid wage garnishment, but this practice may only lead to more fines and seizure of property.

While it’s important to avoid wage garnishment by making arrangements or complying with court orders, it’s also very important that people do not try to avoid having their paychecks reduced by working illegally. Sadly some people do work under the table, where they have no record of being paid, to avoid experiencing garnishment. This may only lead to more fines, and in some cases might lead to seizure of property if money cannot be found.

Wage garnishment will be reflected on the pay stub.
Wage garnishment will be reflected on the pay stub.

Another way people can stop some wage garnishment attempts is by filing bankruptcy. This will usually only work to satisfy private debts from creditors. It doesn’t work with student loans, and bankruptcy does not prevent many people from continuing to pay child support. However, if massive credit card debts are being collected through garnishment it may be one way to get out of the constant payments and end debt obligations.

Wage garnishment is often used to pay back child support.
Wage garnishment is often used to pay back child support.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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My parents divorced in Europe when I was 15. My child support was granted by the courts there and it was garnished from my father's income from the very beginning.

Over there, they don't wait until the parent doesn't pay the support to put wage garnishment into action. They do it from the very beginning to make sure that the child has the support he or she needs. I believe this applies for spouse support as well.

Maybe the same should be done here in the US. From all these comments, it looks like there are quite a few cases where children and spouses don't receive the support they have a right to. A lot of problems and worry could be prevented if wage garnishment was the put in place immediately when child support is granted by the court.

What do you think?


@alisha-- That's right.

As far as I know, lenders have the right to get their money through wage garnishment if your loans are in default.

So the only way to avoid this is to work out a payment that you can handle with the lender and keep your loans out of default.

This is to some extent based on the goodwill of the lender but I think that most lenders want to help people out and work out something before wage garnishment. But if your loans are in default, the lender has the right to use this option.


@titans62-- So if student loans are in forbearance or if they're deferred, loan companies can't request wage garnishment right? Is it possible to qualify for a wage garnishment exemption any other way?

And what happens if the person is unemployed and wage garnishment is not a possibility? Will they take you to court for your property?

All of this sounds so scary. I have a lot of student loans, close to a hundred thousand. I made a huge mistake by going to an expensive school and moreover I was out-of-state. I even did my masters with loans. Now I'm unemployed.

Student loans have become my nightmare. They're all in forbearance right now, but I feel really scared to think about what happens if I don't find a job and I can't get a forbearance anymore.

Even my mom has taken student loans for my schooling. Could wage garnishment apply to her too?


If you are facing wage garnishment, I think the best thing to do is get a wage garnishment attorney. I know a few people that have had their wages garnished, and it's always for some ridiculously large sum of money.

I just don't get it. These people are in debt, so obviously they can't afford to pay. How are they supposed to live if half their paycheck is gone because of a wage garnishment? One of my friends actually had to get a second job because of having his wages garnished. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have been able to afford to feed himself and pay his rent!


@Mykol - What a shame your husband can't provide health insurance to his employees. After all, if his employee had insurance he probably wouldn't be getting his wages garnished, right?

I personally don't think wage garnishment is the right answer for medical debt though. Our healthcare system in this country is so messed up that if you don't have insurance, you're always going to be in debt because of healthcare! Most hospitals and doctors charge uninsured people way more money than insurance companies pay them for those same services! It's just not right.


@StarJo - I actually don't feel very sorry for your friend in this situation. We all have to take responsibility for our actions. Maybe if he had at least tried to provide for his child, the mother wouldn't have gone after him for so much child support.

I have several friends that have private agreements with their co-parents and they never had to go to court of resort to getting a wage garnishment lawyer.

But the people I'm talking about are responsible and both wanted to provide for their child. I've definitely had a few friends that had to go to court for their child support, because the father didn't want to pay anything.


My husband has had IRS wage garnishment for the past two years. Apparently, he owed back taxes from before we got together.

He would have gotten a refund of over a thousand dollars, but since this was money that he made originally, the IRS could garnish it. We didn’t find out until they sent him a letter stating that they had withheld the highest amount allowable by law from his refund check.

This made me very sad, because we had planned to use the money to go on vacation. His past mistakes with money came back to haunt him.


@cloudel - It is good for the mothers and children that wage garnishment exists. However, some states take it to the extreme, in my opinion.

My friend made some mistakes in his life when he was younger, and he got a girl pregnant when they were both seventeen. He moved to another town and never contacted her again, but she sought him out with a lawyer and had his wages garnished for child support a couple of years after the child was born.

We all live in Mississippi, where the wage garnishment laws state that up to 60% of a person’s income can be taken for child support. That means that my friend’s child gets more than half of his money, leaving him with only 40% of his income to live on. Because of this, he has had to live in a one-bedroom apartment with no amenities.


I think it is a very good thing that wage garnishment is legal in the case of child support. There are too many uncaring, lazy fathers out there who would love to drop all the responsibility on the mother for something like this not to be in place.

My best friend’s ex-husband tried to skip out on child support payments. It got so bad for her that she and her son were down to their last can of beans with no way to get more food. This is when her parents got her a lawyer.

Her ex-husband’s wages will be garnished from now on, since he left them so destitute. I think the judge was really passionate about this case, since my friend and her son were about to starve.


I am friends with a couple who had to declare bankruptcy after one of them had to have surgery. They simply could not pay the $50,000 hospital bill, and it got turned over to a collection agency, which is where the problems started.

My friends asked the rude lady on the phone from the agency if they could pay $10 a week, because that was all they could afford, and the lady laughed at them. Had they known that they legally could have gotten away with this, they would not have filed bankruptcy to avoid wage garnishment.

Overzealous collection agents scare many people by threatening wage garnishment, when what they should be doing is encouraging them to pay whatever they can afford. I think they just don’t believe people when they say that they can only give $10 a week.


@jmc88 - I absolutely agree with you. I feel like some people need to take a simple crash course in managing money and feel like colleges should provide a short freshman level course that tells people how to manage their money and explains to them exactly how they may fall into debt and what they should look out for.

Wage garnishment is a bad thing for someone because it does not occur if someone is consistently making payments, even if they are not full payments. A place that is owed money at least sees that someone is making an attempt to pay them.

Tale a hospital for instance, I know people that make constant 20 dollar payments over a long period of time to them and they never have their wages garnished. In order to have your wages garnished one has to simply not pay the place they owe money to for a long time and show that they are probably not going to pay unless they are forced to.

That is why people need to be educated more on spending their money so they do not become a person like this and have their financial lives ruined.

I have to say that most of the time I see people having their wages garnished they have done so due to being bad with handling money and simply being very lax on paying off debt.

I know that it is hard to pay off debt for someone living paycheck to paycheck, but people in general need to understand that if you are in debt you are expected to pay it off and if you fail to do so the money will be taken from you somehow.

Everyone I know that has had their wages garnished could have easily been paying their debt off a little at a time, but would instead spend the money on luxury items that they did not need.

I find it unfortunate that there are people like this that owe money, but get stuck in a cycle of spending their paychecks to the point that they are not able to pay off their debt and instead have their wages garnished which forcibly changes their lifestyle if they constantly rely on the amount of money they usually get.


@titans62 - I agree, it is usually a very extreme case for someone to have their wages garnished to pay off their student loans.

Most places that give out these loans understand that it is going to take years to pay them off so they allow the person ample time to do so, however I know that there are numerous cases in which someone simply does not pay off their loans in a reasonable amount of time.

I know someone that owed a couple thousand dollars to a college and went nearly ten years without paying any of it off and that is when the government stepped in and started to garnish wages. In cases like this it is a matter of paying off debt and they will allow you time, but if it is deemed to be way too long they will forcibly take the money from you that you owe.


The reason why student loan dent never goes away is because back in the 1970's college students would simply declare bankruptcy in order to avoid paying off the debt, because they had so little to their name they could get away with it.

Nowadays this is impossible to do and makes it even harder considering that the prices for college have skyrocketed to over 100 times what they were during the 1970's at some colleges.

I know several people that had to have their wages garnished simply because they were not paying off their student loans.

Now this is a little extreme and is, because one who has student loans will always be in a lot of debt, but loans do not become garnished until the person has shown that they are either being lazy in paying off their debt or that they have simply taken way longer than necessary to make the payments.


@golf07 - My experience with student loan debt is that they will work with you if you are having trouble making your monthly payment.

Many times people just avoid the issue and hope it will go away. Student loan debt never goes away until it is paid off.

I have some private loans for my schooling, and wage garnishment is a last resort for them. On their website they encourage you to call them if you can't make your monthly payment.

I would rather work with them when I am in a tough situation than resort to them garnishing my wages.


I know that even if you file for bankruptcy, you still have to pay back your student loan debt. My son had several thousand dollars in student loans and lost his job.

He thought about filing for bankruptcy, but didn't have much credit card debt, so he didn't go through with it.

There is some lenience when it comes to paying back your student loans, but if you go into default, that is never a good thing.

I ended up helping him out with his loans for awhile so he could avoid getting student loan wage garnishment when he started working again.

They are also very persistent about calling people he had put down for references when he applied for the loan. One way or another, they are going to get the money that is owed to them.

He was able to find a job after a few months, but was trying to catch up on other bills he was behind on. By not having his wages garnished for student loan debt, he was able to get back on track with his finances.


One of my husband's employees often has a garnishment of wages on his paycheck. It has been a long time since he has received full pay.

He has a large family and does not have any medical insurance. One of his sons has had a lot of medical problems, so many of his garnishments have been to pay for medical bills.

It is hard for a large family to always make ends meet, but when your check is always smaller than you are hoping it will be, it can make it even harder.

I still think he should be held responsible for his debt just like everybody else. He has also made many poor money decisions and likes to spend time at the casino.

That makes it hard to feel too sorry for him. The last time his wages were garnished was for an expensive water softener and purifier he bought for his home that he wasn't making the payments on.

It seems like once he gets one debt paid for, it doesn't take very long before his wages are garnished for something else.


One of my friends is a single parent with three kids. She has always had trouble getting child support from her ex-husband. I think any kind of financial support she has ever received was because she had his wages garnished.

I have a hard time understanding the lengths some people will go to when it comes to not paying child support for their kids.

He chose not to have much of a relationship with them, so making his child support payments was not important to him. He started taking jobs where he was paid cash so there was no record of his income.

He also changed jobs all the time. If he ever started getting a regular paycheck and his wages were garnished, he would quit and try to find another job where his wages weren't recorded.

I don't think he was trying to find out how to stop wage garnishment, he was just trying to avoid it all together.

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