Can a debt collector take or garnish my wages or benefits?
If a court issues a judgment saying that you owe a debt, it could allow the creditor to garnish your wages or certain benefits to pay it off. State and federal laws limit how much a creditor can garnish from your wages. They also limit how much a creditor can garnish from an account where your benefits are deposited, or protect a minimum amount in your bank account from levies even if you don’t receive federal benefits.
Most creditors can only garnish wages or benefits after a court issues a judgment saying that you owe the debt and that the creditor can garnish your wages or benefits to satisfy the debt. A garnishment order generally allows a creditor to garnish the amount in the judgment, as well as additional interest, fees, or costs of collection.
Exemptions protect wages, benefits, and money from garnishment
Federal and state laws set exemptions or limitations to protect your wages, benefits, or money in a bank account to make sure you have something left to live on.
Banks must protect certain federal benefits from being frozen or garnished if they’re directly deposited into your banking account. The bank must review your account and protect two months’ worth of direct-deposited benefits before freezing or garnishing any money in the account. You may also claim this federal exemption for up to two months’ worth of federal benefits if you deposit them by check. Learn how to claim exemptions at .
Federal benefits covered by this rule generally include:
- Social Security
- Supplemental Security Income
- Veterans’ benefits
- Federal Railroad payments for retirement, unemployment, and sickness
- Civil Service Retirement (CSR) payments
- Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS) payments
State exemptions may also protect some wages or property – such as money in a bank account – from garnishment. You can find out how much your state protects from garnishment and learn how to claim exemptions at .
Exceptions for debt to federal or state government agencies
Federal and state agencies can sometimes garnish your paycheck, benefits, or money in a bank account without a court order. Here are some examples:
- Federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Education can take up to 15 percent of your Social Security or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits.
- States can generally garnish wages or money in a bank account to pay child support.
How to get legal help
In some cases, people may become unaware that their wages or benefits have been garnished when funds are frozen or removed from their account. If you’ve had a lawsuit filed against you by a debt collector, it’s important not to ignore it because it could result in a judgment against you if you don’t appear in court.
An attorney experienced in consumer law or debt collection can help you understand your state and federal rights, and help you claim federal or state protections for your paycheck, benefits, or money in a bank account. Some consumer attorneys can represent you if a debt collector takes you to court for an unpaid debt. They may also help you negotiate a settlement or work out a repayment plan with the debt collector.
Here are several ways you can find a lawyer to help you with a debt:
- Get referrals from the American Bar Association website or your state bar association
- Identify state-based legal aid programs for low-income consumers
- Consult your local JAG office if you’re a servicemember
If you're having trouble with a debt collector or believe your benefits or wages have been improperly garnished, you can submit a complaint with the CFPB.