Wage Garnishments and Child Support

How to Stop Child Support Garnishment

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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 disposable earning 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 5% 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.

Income Sources

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.

Stopping a wage garnishment 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 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.

Changing or Modifying a Garnishment

Grounds for challenging or modifying a child support order (and garnishment) will vary by jurisdiction. Reasons for a modification might include some or all of the following:

  • There's been a change in your employment status
  • There's been a change in the child's custody (you now have custody).
  • Your income has decreased.
  • The custodial parent is now earning more than when the garnishment began.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How far behind can you get in child support payments before facing wage garnishment?

Your local child support agency will decide on the exact steps to take at different stages of child support delinquency. There are plenty of options that come into play almost as soon as you miss a payment. For example, if you are at least 60 days late on child support payments totaling more than $100, California tax authorities have the power to take the funds from your bank accounts.

How do you calculate how much child support you owe?

Child support payments are calculated differently, depending on the state in which you live. Check with state authorities for help calculating your child support payments. For example, California residents can use the California child support payment calculator, and Texas residents can use the child support calculator for Texas. The final figure will depend on a court judgment, but these kinds of calculators can give you a rough idea of what your payments will be.

Article Sources

  1. Department of Labor. "Fact Sheet #30: The Federal Wage Garnishment Law, Consumer Credit Protection Act’s Title III (CCPA)." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

  2. Department of Health and Human Services. "Processing an Income Withholding Order or Notice." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

  3. Department of Health and Human Services. "Income Withholding." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

  4. State of Connecticut Child Support Enforcement Service. "Written Request for Review and Enforcement." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

  5. Office of Child Support Enforcement. "Processing an Income Withholding Order or Notice." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

  6. Office of Child Support Enforcement. "State Child Support Agencies With Debt Compromise Policies." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.

  7. California Courts. "Paying a Child Support Order." Accessed Feb. 6, 2022.