Garnishments allow a creditor to collect the money he is owed by taking a portion of the debt directly from the debtor’s bank account or paycheck. Research suggests that more than 7 percent of the population have their wages garnished each year, so it’s a fairly popular way of paying off debt. For most types of consumer debt, only the court can make an order for garnishment. That means it’s fairly simple to find out if someone is having debt repayments taken out of their account.
What Is Garnishment?
Garnishment happens after a creditor has sued someone for nonpayment of a debt and has won in court. To get the money he is owed, a creditor can ask the court for one of two types of garnishment:
- Wage garnishment, in which the employer is legally required to hand over part of the debtor’s paycheck each month.
- Bank levy, in which the creditor can take the money he is owed directly from the debtor’s bank account.
There are both state and federal limits on the amount of money that can be taken from wages, depending on the type of debt. For example, up to 15 percent of an employee’s wages can be garnished to pay off federal student loans. This ensures that garnishment is not too much of a financial burden.
However, the main point is that most times, a creditor must get a court order before being able to garnish the debtor’s wages or bank account. Court orders are public record, so anyone can find out if a person has a garnishment judgment by searching the court records.
Search the Court Records
For most types of consumer debt, such as when someone has defaulted on a bank loan, the creditor must get two court judgments before it can take cash from the debtor's accounts or wages. The first is a debt judgment, which confirms that the debtor owes the creditor money. The second is the order for garnishment or bank levy. Both of these judgments will appear in the court records.
Generally, the clerk of the local county court where the debtor lives and/or works will be able to say if there are any "live" garnishment judgments on file. Some courts maintain an online database of court judgments that anyone can search, as long as the researcher knows the debtor’s name and the county.
County courts do have jurisdictional limits, so if the debt is very large (for instance, over $200,000 – the clerk can specify the maximum jurisdiction amount), then the garnishment order may have come from a superior court, such as the District Court. It’s still possible to look up a cases; it’s just a different case inquiry system.
Run a Credit Check
Some types of debt, including student loans, defaulted IRS taxes and child support, do not need a court order for the relevant agency to start garnishing the debtor’s wages. This means that these garnishments will not show up on a court records search. However, if the debt is sufficiently delinquent, then it likely will have been reported to the three major credit bureaus. Pulling the person’s credit report should provide the relevant details.
Running a credit check is not an option for everyone, however, and it’s not possible to snoop around someone’s financial records without the person's consent. By the Fair Credit Reporting Act, only employers, insurance underwriters, lenders, landlords and potential creditors can ask for a person’s credit report. These organizations often check to see if there is an existing garnishment in place before they make an offer of credit, since garnishments are evidence of poor financial management on the part of the debtor.