When Can An Employer Legally Garnish Your Wages?

Garnishing wages is a controversial topic for a number of reasons. Some people believe your wages should be legally allowed to be garnished when you are a convicted of a crime and owe some form of restitution — because why should you be allowed to skate by without paying when you committed the crime? Others believe that other factors should be considered when determining the legality of wage garnishment, like the type of crime and a person’s financial status. 

So when can an employer legally garnish your wages? It’s the question we receive most often from those who are subject to wage garnishment, but it’s actually framed the wrong way. In fact, it’s the government who garnishes the wages paid to you by your employer. And the answer is complicated. It depends on your circumstances.

For example, do you have a job that pays literal wages? Or are you some kind of a contractor? Ironically, convicted felons are more likely to work under the table or as contractors — because those jobs are more likely to skip the background check. Also, these classes of workers are the least likely to have pay garnished, which almost makes it a moot point! If you have any doubt whether or not the government is garnishing wages legally, then a wage garnishment attorney can always help answer your questions.

There are specific entities that are likely to garnish a person’s wages, too. The IRS for example will garnish a person’s wages when the organization finds that person failed to pay the requisite taxes (which is better than being sent to jail, which sometimes happens to those accused of tax evasion or tax fraud).

Debt collectors can also sometimes garnish a person’s wages — but only when a creditor wins a judgment against you in the court of law. If you never stepped foot in court, then you either missed your summons — in which case there’s probably a bench warrant out for your arrest — or someone checked the wrong box on a form somewhere. It’s another reason to check in with a lawyer.

The most common reasons for garnished wages include: alimony, child support, unpaid taxes, unpaid loans, etc. Any child support or alimony orders don’t need to go through the court process before your wages are garnished. This is done automatically. More importantly, garnishment in these cases is usually much higher than the typical 25 percent. Child support cases usually garnish about 50 percent.

There are methods to reduce or eliminate wage garnishments in most situations, assuming you have the financial need to do so. For example, you can try approaching the court to file a claim of exemption. Alternatively, you can completely eliminate the debt by filing for bankruptcy.

Did you know that most wage garnishments connected to convicted felons are actually based on back child support payments accrued while they were still in prison? This is another reason the topic is controversial, because obviously a person cannot support a child from behind bars. The policy is blamed for higher rates of re-offending for those convicts who have children.