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What are Garnished Wages?

Tricia Christensen
Updated: Feb 15, 2024

Garnished wages are monies taken from payroll or royalty checks, or from investment checks to pay a debt. People may have their wages garnished as a result of failure to pay back taxes, failure to pay child support, failure to pay creditors, or failure to pay monies in any type of court settlement. Generally a court must order those paying the person who is in debt to reduce the wages. The employer must then send the garnished amount to the appropriate source.

Those who have debts can frequently avoid garnished wages by paying debts, or working out debt payment programs, which are then rigidly followed. When those in debt do not adhere to a payment program, those owed may then ask a court to compel a debtor to pay. In some cases, as in back taxes, it isn’t even necessary to involve the courts to order a garnishment. The government can also fairly easily cause garnishment, as well as reduction of income tax returns when a borrower defaults on a student loan.

One particularly effective result of garnished wages is the collection of back child support. In acrimonious divorces, a spouse may refuse to pay appropriate child or spousal support. This is a significant problem in the US, with many divorced mothers going unpaid for support of their children, and requiring government assistance. When a parent seeks welfare relief from the government, the offending spouse may have his or her wages garnished to pay back the government. In refusal-to-pay situations, the court may order that the offending spouse have garnished wages as a result of refusal to comply with the financial terms of the divorce.

There are a few states in the US that restrict garnished wages to a few types of debts. North and South Carolina, Texas and Pennsylvania allow them only for federal or state tax debts, child support, defaulted student loans that are federally guaranteed, or for compensatory damages decided by a court during a criminal or civil law suit. A credit card company cannot garnish the wages of an employee unless they sue the borrower.

Many states also restrict the amount of wages that can be garnished. In general only 25% of a person’s pay may be taken. In some states, this amount is lower. It is absolutely illegal to avoid garnished wages by hiding assets or by being paid “under the table,” where no record of wage payment exists. Those who do not pay their debts by hiding the money they earn are subject to criminal prosecution for fraud.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon171837 — On May 02, 2011

I hope so. if you owe back child support then you owe if you skipped out. But if you were not supposed to be paying any in the first place and now they want back pay, I say tough.

By anon170972 — On Apr 28, 2011

can the state of Virginia garnish my paycheck for back child support if the child is 23 now and the divorce was in Texas and I live in Alabama?

By hacknslash — On Apr 10, 2011

On a joint checking account it is just easier to pull off the name of the person being garnished.

I have also had to do this because the court can have the account frozen.

By hacknslash — On Apr 10, 2011

Yes, the government can and will keep your tax check because of your spouse's unpaid, in default school loan.

However, if you file an injured spouse form every year along with your taxes, you will get your part of the tax check. It takes six to eight extra weeks though. I have been doing this for five years now.

By anon156001 — On Feb 25, 2011

I need some advice. i have 5 garnishee orders on my salary. I can't cope. I must pay a house and have a family to support. can anyone please assist?

By anon153677 — On Feb 17, 2011

I didn't realize a creditor could garnish our bank account as our only deposits are from retirement government check and social security. Is this legal in Oklahoma?

By anon109389 — On Sep 07, 2010

I had a Heloc tied to my house. The house was foreclosed on and now the bank is garnishing my bank account to pay off the debt. Can they do this since I no longer have the house?

By anon103302 — On Aug 11, 2010

can a collection agency garnish wages from your bank account directly?

By anon92635 — On Jun 29, 2010

I had a bank of america bank card in 2004. the card was for 500.00. i went through a hard time and paid the amount, then they started contacting myself about outrageous late fees, that totaled to over 2400.00, but I have paid them off.

By KyleB — On Feb 09, 2010

Is it legal for the Department of Education to take my income tax return for my wife's debts without giving me notice to make payments for her?

By anon63356 — On Feb 01, 2010

Can you garnish the wage of a sibling who owes you money.

By anon41598 — On Aug 16, 2009

Can the state of West Virginia garnish my pay for back taxes without a 30-day notice? Example, rec letter one Friday told next pay, 7 days later, would be garnished?

By bluebaby23 — On Jul 21, 2009

what are the laws on garnishment of wages in Florida on a student loan for someone that is head of household

By needyourhelp — On May 22, 2009

My ex-wife is setting up a corporation in her name with her new boyfriend. She is trying to get her employer to pay her as a corporation to avoid wage garnishment and also to avoid paying me child support. Is this legal loophole to avoid paying by switching her SSN to a Tax ID # so nothing can be attached to her personally? Any advice would be well appreciated.

By bearafun — On Mar 25, 2009

Question: If you are not working at all and you have no income or unemployment coming in how does the court order a judgment against you for failure to pay a credit debt? If you have no income or wage that can be garnished how does the court handle the case?

By suebrown7 — On Feb 19, 2009

Can unemployment be garnished in the state of Washington?

By tedilicha — On Nov 28, 2008

If it's a Joint checking account, can they garnish that account???

By sboyer — On Aug 19, 2008

Do all involuntary garnishments have to be court ordered?

By aksalaanita — On Feb 29, 2008

Does a bank or financial institution have to be licensed in the state a person is living in to garnish that person's wages? For example, if someone moves to Alaska and the bank is not licensed in Alaska can the person's wages still be garnished?

By anon3494 — On Sep 01, 2007

what is the percent of garnishment for Nebraska?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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