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California and Wage Garnishments: What Are Your Rights?

WAGE GARNISHMENT concept

If you owe certain types of debts to creditors, the government, or certain individuals, you may be subject to a particularly irritating arrangement: garnishment of your wages. The person to whom you owe debt may be able to collect directly from your paycheck before you even get your hands on your money. Wage garnishment is only available under certain circumstances, however, and there are limitations on how much a creditor can take. If you are facing wage garnishment or other aggressive forms of debt collection, a dedicated Southern California debt relief attorney may be able to help reduce your debt and otherwise protect your rights.

What is a Wage Garnishment?

A wage garnishment, or wage attachment, is an order from a court or government agency. The order allows a creditor to collect a portion of your wage, meaning that your employer will withhold that sum from your paycheck and send that money directly to a creditor. Your employer is legally required to garnish your wages if they receive a court order to do so, although they are also required to notify you of the garnishment.

When Can a Creditor Garnish Wages?

A creditor typically must obtain a judgment against you to garnish your wages. That means that most creditors, such as credit card companies, banks, or other service providers such as doctors, must first sue you regarding the debt you owe and must prevail in court before obtaining a wage attachment. Importantly, you are entitled to defend yourself in court before wage garnishment begins. You can argue, for example, that the party suing has no right to collect, that they are wrong as to the amount that you owe, that you’ve already paid, or that you have not been given sufficient time to repay them under the terms of your agreement.

There are certain circumstances under which a creditor can garnish your wages even without first prevailing in a court proceeding. For example, if you owe unpaid taxes to the government, or if you are delinquent on child support payments to a former spouse, then the government or your former spouse may be able to seek wage garnishment without going through a trial. Defaulted student loans are also subject to wage garnishment without a court proceeding.

What are the Limits on Wage Garnishment?

No creditor can garnish your entire paycheck. Garnishment is typically limited to 25 percent of your “disposable earnings” or the amount that your disposable income exceeds 40 times California’s state minimum wage, whichever is lower. California’s minimum wage is currently $12 per hour for employers with more than 25 employees and $11 per hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.

For example, let’s say you earn $500 per week, and $50 is taken out for taxes. Your disposable (net) earnings are $450. Twenty-five percent of $450 is $112.50. We then compare that to the minimum wage calculation. Assuming you work at a company with fewer than 25 employees, the minimum wage in California is $11 per hour. Eleven dollars times 40 hours equals $440. Subtracting $440 from your disposable earnings of $450 equals $10. Because $10 is lower than $112.50, your creditors can garnish a maximum of $10 from your wages per week.

Talk to an Experienced Southern California Bankruptcy Attorney

If you’re struggling with debt and considering bankruptcy, please contact Rounds & Sutter for a free, confidential consultation. With offices in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Westlake Village, we represent clients throughout Southern California, offering smart, compassionate legal counsel in the face of life’s challenges.