Labor and Employment

Can My Wages Be Garnished to Repay a Debt?

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
If you have unpaid debts, your creditors may be able to garnish your wages until the debt is paid in full.

If you have unpaid debts, such as past-due credit card bills, child support, or overdue taxes, your creditor may be able to garnish your paycheck until the debt is paid in full. If your paycheck is garnished, your employer has a legal obligation to withhold some of your wages and pay it directly to your creditor.

However, there are limits on who can garnish your wages and how much they can take. These rules depend on the type of debt you owe.

Who Can Garnish Wages?

Not everyone to whom you might owe money can garnish your wages. For example, your credit card company or your doctor cannot simply ask your employer to hand over part of your paycheck. Wage garnishments are allowed only for:

  • Child and family support. All child support orders, and some spousal support orders, include a wage garnishment provision. If you fail to pay these amounts, that could result in a wage garnishment.
  • Student loans. If you fall behind on paying your federal student loans, the Department of Education can get a wage garnishment.
  • Tax debts. If you owe back taxes, the IRS—and possibly, your state or local government—can also garnish your wages.
  • Judgment creditors. For all other types of debts (like hospital and credit card bills), the person or company you owe money to must go to court, file a lawsuit, and win a judgment against you in order to get a wage garnishment.

How Much Can Be Garnished?

The amount your employer can withhold from your wages to satisfy a wage garnishment depends on the type of debt you owe. Regular creditors who have secured a judgment against you can take up to 25% of your wages under federal law (or less, if your earnings are low). Some states place lower limits on how much regular creditors can claim from your paycheck. In New York, for example, judgment creditors may take only 10% of your wages (or less, depending on your earnings). If your state has such a law, that lower limit applies.

Other types of creditors are subject to the following limits:

  • If you owe child or spousal support, and you do not have other dependents, up to 60% of your wages can be garnished. However, if you are supporting a child or a spouse who is not the subject of the order, up to 50% of your wages can be taken. If you owe back support, even more of your wages can be taken.
  • For student loans, up to 15% of your wages can be garnished.
  • For tax debts, the amount the IRS and/or your state and local taxing authority can take depends on your income, deductions, and dependents. For example, if you are filing single and have one dependent, the IRS can take all but about $200 of your weekly wages. See the limits for your filing status and dependent claims in IRS Form 1494.

For more information, see our page on wage garnishments and attachments.

If You Are Fired Because of Wage Garnishment

Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire you because of a single wage garnishment. But, if more than one creditor requires your employer to garnish your wages, you are no longer protected from termination under federal law.

Every state has its own garnishment laws; yours may give you more rights than the federal law. Depending on where you live, your employer might never be able to terminate you because of a garnishment. Or, your employer might be allowed to fire you only after receiving multiple garnishment notices from multiple creditors. In Georgia, for example, your employer may not fire you for multiple garnishments for the same debt, but may fire you if it receives garnishment orders for more than one debt.

If your employer illegally fires you because of a wage garnishment, it may be subject to fines and other criminal penalties. You may also be able to sue your former employer for wrongful termination. (See our Wrongful Termination FAQ for more information.) Talk to an experienced local employment lawyer if you believe you were illegally fired because your wages were garnished.
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