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Wage garnishment is one of the last steps in collecting debts for child support, alimony, student loans and income taxes—all of which the government can pull money from someone’s paycheck without obtaining a court order.

Wage garnishment for unpaid financial obligations such as unpaid credit cards or most loans require a court order.

If a portion of monthly income is taken through wage garnishment, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to that person.

The person will likely receive numerous warnings that the debt is due. These can include notices from the company or agency owed the debt, such as a credit card company, followed by delinquency notices from debt collectors, a lawsuit filed and possibly a court judgment issued.

In most wage garnishment cases, federal rules allow up to 25 percent of disposable wages to be garnished, or the amount by which the income exceeds 30 times the federal minimum wage—whichever is less.

Disposable income is arrived at by subtracting standard tax obligations and other withholdings from gross earnings. Some types of income aren’t allowed to be garnished, such as Social Security, disability benefits, pensions and retirement funds, child support and alimony.

There are exceptions. Up to 60 percent of disposable wages can be garnished for unpaid alimony or child support. Social Security and other retirement benefits can be garnished to repay federal income taxes and child support.

Fighting wage garnishment
If wages are going to be garnished, the employer is required by law to inform the person of their right to protest it. The paperwork explaining the garnishment will detail how to appeal a court’s ruling.

Some state laws are more favorable than federal laws on wage garnishment, and the court can be asked to invoke a state exemption.

Another option is to offer to pay a percentage of the debt to a debt collector as a lump sum, which will make it easier for them to get the money than to file lawsuits seeking wage garnishment. If the person can get a hold of a debt collector before wage garnishment is sought, he/she may be able to set up a payment plan of the debt or agree to one payment.

Wage garnishment can be one of the last payment methods a person would want to be part of if he/she owes someone money. Money can be taken out of a paycheck before the person gets their hands on it, leaving him/her with less money than expected — but with the debt ultimately paid after months or even years of garnishment.