Garnishment is a legal process that allows a creditor to collect money awarded by a court that has not been paid. The award can result from a judgment against a person after a trial, or a court order such as a child support or alimony order. Typically, creditors file garnishment lawsuits to take money from a debtor's bank accounts. The bank is served with the lawsuit, along with the debtor.

Creditors can also garnish earnings directly from the creditor's employer. In child support situations, wage garnishment is a common method of obtaining child support from an unwilling parent. Usually, a form is served on the employer instructing it to take certain steps to direct the debtor's earnings to the creditor.

Sidebar: Garnishments can only be used by a judgment creditor. A creditor to whom you simply owe money cannot proceed with a garnishment suit against you.

I have had my checking account garnished. Can I still use the account?

Yes. However, any money you deposit will be subject to the garnishment. Additionally, any checks you write on the account will be returned.

Can my entire paycheck be garnished?

No. Laws limit the amount of money that can be garnished to a certain percentage of the debtor's net pay (gross pay minus state and federal taxes). For example, the law may prohibit garnishing more than 20 percent of the debtor's net earnings.

TIP: A child support garnishment can be as high as 50 to 60 percent of the debtor's net earnings.

My employer has been served with a garnishment for my wages. Is there any way I can prevent a portion of my salary from being garnished?

Yes. You can answer the garnishment. Usually, a debtor's answer form is provided in the garnishment paperwork that you received. If you answer and assert a defense, your employer is prohibited from paying the creditor out of your earnings until there has been a hearing on the matter.

How long will my wages be garnished?

Depending on the laws of your states, several weeks' worth of paychecks could be affected. A usual time period is 3 months. If the creditor is paid off before the garnishment period ends, the garnishment order terminates.

Can my bank account be garnished if my only income is Social Security disability payments?

No. Social Security payments, pensions, unemployment and other state and federal aid payments are exempt from garnishment.

TIP: You must file a garnishment exemption notice. The bank where you have your account usually provides the form.

If my wages are being garnished, can the same creditor garnish my bank accounts?

Yes. If you want to avoid a bank account garnishment, cash your paycheck and pay bills with money orders and all other expenses in cash.

My mother's name is on my bank account because I was under 18 when I opened it many years ago. Can my mother's creditors garnish the funds although she has never deposited any money in the account?

Yes. If your mother's name is on the account, it is her account, too, and it is subject to a garnishment. If garnishment papers were not served on you, get copies from the bank and file an answer appealing the garnishment order. The court will set a hearing and it is likely a judge will order the funds released because they belong to you alone.

Will the garnishment on my wages continue if I file bankruptcy?

No. As soon as you file, the automatic stay goes into effect, stopping all collection efforts by your creditors, including those with judgments and court orders.

TIP: Immediately provide the bank or employer and the creditor garnishing your wages with a copy of your bankruptcy petition. Do not wait on your lawyer (if you have hired one to file the bankruptcy) to send the petition; hand deliver it as soon as possible.

I filed suit in small claims court against my neighbor and was awarded $1,000. The neighbor refuses to pay. Can I garnish her bank account?

Yes. You are a judgment creditor and can garnish up to $1,000 from her bank account. However, you must know the name of the bank and account number to pursue a garnishment.

Sidebar: You must obtain a "Writ of Garnishment" from the small claims court. There will be a fee of approximately $50. Additionally, the court may require a sheriff's deputy to serve the writ on the debtor and the bank, which adds at least another $100 to the cost.

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