A parent's wages are usually only garnished for child support when they're severely in arrears—they haven't made full payments in several months. The garnishment process is usually initiated and coordinated with the parent's employer by the courts and a state government child support agency.
How Much Can Be Garnished?
Federal law has set limits on all types of garnishments since 1968 when Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act was passed.
The law allows employers to garnish up to 50% of a parent's pay for past-due child support, and this increases to 60% if the parent is not supporting a spouse or another child or children who aren't covered under the child support order in question.
It further increases to 65% if the parent is more than 12 weeks behind in payments.
This can work out to more than double the limit for other types of debts, which is generally only 25%, but the overall combined cap remains at 50% to 65% if you're being garnished for other debts as well. A creditor can't take 25% while another 60% or so is garnished for child support because this would work out to 85%.
Child support garnishments take priority over any other garnishments, with the exception of IRS tax levies. Even then, child support has first priority unless the levy was placed before the date the child support order was issued.
The Garnishment Process
The process begins when an employer receives notification from the state that it's required to garnish the employee's wages. The letter will include a copy of the court order that establishes child support payments.
The employer will issue a letter to the employee, either transmitted with the next paycheck or before, to explain the wage garnishment.
The employee/parent can then contest the wage garnishment with the court and attempt to make a case based on changes in income, unemployment, other hardships, or other isolated circumstances.
Support arrears can be garnished from other sources of income in addition to regular wages. Commissions, bonuses, workers' comp benefits, and pensions can be garnished as well, according to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement.
This list is not exhaustive. Income from virtually any source can be vulnerable.
How to Stop a Wage Garnishment
You're not defenseless if your employer errs in garnishing your wages.
First, gather proof of all the child support payments you've made. Take copies to the court that issued the child support order. Request an order to stop the wage garnishment from continuing.
This generally involves filing a petition or motion with the court, and there might be a small filing fee, but most courts will waive these fees if you honestly can't afford them.
Take the order to stop the wage garnishment to your employer if your request is granted. The wage garnishments should cease immediately.
It might be possible to work with the court in some cases to have any overpayment amount applied to the current month or to future months. Reach out to the court clerk for assistance with this process.
Grounds for Challenging a Garnishment
You're limited to just four scenarios when you're objecting to a garnishment:
- You actually had custody at the time you did not pay support.
- The total amount to be garnished is in error, perhaps because you made payments that aren't accounted for.
- You quite literally cannot pay your monthly bills if this full amount is garnished. Be prepared to provide a full accounting of your monthly expenses. Some might not be honored if they're considered extravagant.
- The custodial parent hid the whereabouts of your child from you. Simply being denied parenting time doesn't count.
Employer Discrimination and Wage Garnishments
The law protects employees from unfair discrimination due to wage garnishments. Your employer can't terminate your employment because you've been garnished, at least not for one debt. It can do so if you're garnished for more than two or more debts.
Nor can your employer withhold more than the maximum allowable amount. Contact an attorney in your state or file a complaint with the United States Department of Labor if you believe that you've been discriminated against.
Avoiding Wage Garnishments
Consider reaching out to the court to develop a manageable payment arrangement if you’ve fallen behind on child support payments but have not yet had your wages garnished.
You might also seek a child support modification hearing if you're experiencing financial problems, or if your circumstances have changed considerably since the child support order was originally issued. Reach out to an experienced child support lawyer in your area or to legal aid for assistance with this process.
Income Withholding Orders vs. Garnishment
Parents might be understandably confused by all this because they know money is being withheld from their pay regularly and they are not behind with their child support payments.
That's because all states require that parents pay child support through income withholding orders or IWOs—your employer is required by law to withhold the amount of your "regular" child support per pay period and forward the money to the state for transmission to your child's other parent.
This process should not be confused with wage garnishment. It's an arrangement that provides for payment of current child support obligations, not arrears, and the 50% to 65% limits, therefore, don't apply.
Parents can agree to mutually waive the IWO requirement in some states.