Debtor and Creditor

What Is a Head of Household Wage Garnishment Exemption?

Learn how to protect the money you need to support your family.

Creditors have the right to garnish your wages (deduct funds from your paycheck), but you also have the right to support yourself and the people who depend on you. Some states have a “head of household” exemption that will allow you to protect an additional amount of money from garnishment. You can use it when you have dependents, such as children at home or a disabled relative to support.

What Is a Wage Garnishment Exemption?

In general, creditors can garnish your wages only after they have sued you and the court awards them a judgment (this doesn’t apply to particular creditors, such as the Internal Revenue Service or federal student loan lenders). A money judgment is a court order allowing a creditor to take direct collection actions, such as garnishing your wages or levying (withdrawing funds from) your bank account.

Creditors aren’t authorized to take all of your income in a wage garnishment. Federal law limits judgment creditors to no more than 25% of your “disposable income”—the amount remaining after required deductions, such as taxes, are taken out. (Keep in mind that the IRS or someone you owe child support to can take more.) This amount is a total cap. If you have more than one judgment creditor, each creditor won’t get a 25% bite of your income.

Your state law might offer more generous protections. One protection that some states (but not all) provide is the “head of household” exemption.

(Learn more by reading When Can a Creditor Garnish Your Wages?)

The Head of Household Exemption Protects Income

Exemptions are income deductions that allow you to place a certain amount of your income off-limits to creditors. In states that have the “head of household” exemption, you can often exempt a larger amount of your income if you can show that you provide more than 50% of the financial support for a child or other dependent. The protections offered by the “head of household” exemption vary from state to state. Here are a couple of examples:

  • In Florida, the head of household exemption protects 100% of your income.
  • Missouri limits the garnishment of a head of household to 10% of your disposable income.

In some states, you can use your status as the head of your family to ask for a “hardship” exemption. The court will consider your position as the primary earner for your dependents when deciding how much of your disposable income is available to pay back creditors.

You don’t need to claim your dependent on your taxes to qualify for the “head of household” exemption, although it’s one of the factors the court will consider when deciding whether you are entitled to the exemption.

How Do I Use the Head of Household Exemption?

To contest (oppose) the amount of a wage garnishment, you must file “claim of exemption” paperwork with the court. The paperwork shows the court how much money you make, how many dependents you’re supporting, and your household expenses. You should list your status as the head of your household in this paperwork.

In some states, you won’t be able to claim the “head of household” exemption unless you file your claim of exemption paperwork on time. When a creditor sends a wage garnishment order to your employer, the order contains information on how to contest the garnishment amount, including deadlines for filing your objection paperwork. Your employer is supposed to give you a copy of this order. If you didn’t receive a copy, and garnishment has already started, ask for the order from your payroll or human resources department.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Does my state have a head of household wage garnishment exemption?
  • How do I claim the head of household exemption?
  • If my state doesn’t offer the head of household exemption, how do I show the court I am supporting dependents?
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