Your paycheck lands on your desk, but the amount is less than usual, and there’s a deduction on your stub that you don’t recognize. Upon closer inspection, you realize that someone has garnished your wages, but you don’t know who it might be. If you’re facing a mysterious drop in your paycheck, and you need to find out who is responsible, the tips in this article should help you determine the creditor’s identity.
The Wage Garnishment Process
Creditors frequently use garnishments to enforce debts, and a wage garnishment shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although the rules differ depending on the type of garnishment, a creditor must follow procedures that give you some notice and follow a process that allows you to resolve the debt before a garnishment takes place.
- A creditor with a money judgment. This type of creditor must sue you in court and win a judgment (a court order stating that you owe the money). Creditors in this category include credit card companies, medical providers, personal injury plaintiffs, auto loan lenders, and most others. If you are sued by one of these general creditors, you should have already received a copy of the lawsuit against you (the “complaint”) and other paperwork telling you when and how to respond. If you ignore this paperwork or respond incorrectly, the creditor can ask the court to issue a “default judgment” against you.
- Domestic support creditor. Similarly, courts cannot order child support payments without informing you that a case is active and giving you information on how to respond to it. If you received this paperwork and didn’t answer, the court might have granted a judgment against you.
- Internal Revenue Service. Unlike most creditors, the IRS doesn’t have to sue you and get a judgment before starting a wage garnishment. However, it must send you a letter stating how much you owe and give you an opportunity to take advantage of a payment program to help you avoid the garnishment.
- Student loan creditor. Some student loan creditors also have the ability to garnish your wages without suing you first. Again, you should have received a notice informing you that you were behind on payments and explaining how you could voluntarily enter into a payment agreement.
(For more information about how each type works, start by reading When Can a Creditor Garnish Your Wages?)
Contacting Your Payroll Department
A wage garnishment begins when a creditor submits a garnishment order to your employer or payroll department. An employer has an obligation to give you a copy of this order and usually does so immediately after receiving it. If this didn’t happen, request a copy.
Inspecting the Garnishment Order
After you get a copy of the order, you’ll want to review it closely. The order should state the identity of the creditor, and if applicable, the location and case number of the underlying court case. You’ll want to use that information to help you recognize the creditor. But if, after going through your financial records, you still can’t place the debt, you can try other avenues.
- Pull your credit report. Once per year, you’re entitled to a free copy through annualcreditreport.com. You might find a notation of the creditor in the report's debt or judgment section.
- Get a copy of the lawsuit. You can use the courthouse location and case number to get a copy of the original complaint. The information should help you determine whether the obligation is your responsibility.
Stopping a Wage Garnishment
Your options will depend on the creditor type, whether the creditor followed the law and your particular circumstances. For instance, you might be able to fight the garnishment if:
- the creditor failed to serve you with the proper notice or a lawsuit
- state law allows you to exempt (protect) some or all of the garnished wages, or
- the garnishment will cause you and your family undue hardship.
Additionally, the IRS and your student loan lender will likely have a program that will let you make voluntary payments. For assistance, you can try visiting the self-help division of your local courthouse or contacting an attorney for a consultation.
(For more information, read How to Stop a Wage Garnishment.)
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can you help me work with the IRS to stop my garnishment?
- Is it likely that the court will set aside the judgment or reduce the garnishment amount?
- What are my student loan options?