One effective and relatively inexpensive way for a judgment creditor to ensure that it is repaid is to go after a debtor's wages. Even if the debtor does not have a lot of assets, California law allows a creditor to seize up to 25 percent of a debtor's weekly disposable earnings.
Once a creditor receives a judgment against a debtor, it can use the garnishment process to attempt to have the debtor's employer withhold the non-exempt portion of a debtor's disposable earnings. In California, a creditor can garnish an employee's wages for consumer debt, defaulted student loans, tax debt and support obligations.
Process of Garnishment
The creditor completes an Application for Earnings Withholding Order, otherwise known as a wage garnishment, that details the debt owed, the type of debt and the judgment that has been rendered. California provides a standard form for this purpose. The creditor must provide the name and address of the employer on this form. The Earnings Withholding Order then is served on the California employer, along with instructions regarding how much is to be garnished.
For debt related to spousal or child support, the process in California is similar. However, the creditor only needs the original court order for support to enforce the order, not a separate judgment based on not receiving the support. The creditor sends an Earnings Withholding Order for Support to the employer. The employer is given 10 days to process the garnishment paperwork. It does not withhold any wages during these ten days. However, it begins to withhold wages from paychecks that are given after the 10 days have expired. If there is an order for child support and spousal support, California law requires the amount due for child support to be deducted from wages first.
For consumer debts, California permits creditors to garnish up to 25 percent of a debtor's disposable earnings or the amount of the debtor's disposable earnings that exceed 40 times the state minimum wage, whichever is the lower amount. In 2015, the state minimum wage was $9 an hour. If an employee had $500 in disposable earnings, 25 percent of those earnings would be $125. Additionally, 40 times the California minimum wage would be $360, so $140 could be garnished. Under this calculation, the creditor could only garnish $125 since that is the smaller amount. For support orders, California permits up to 50 percent of a debtor's wages to be garnished.
Generally, the employer must follow the instructions on the first garnishment writ that it receives. However, tax and support orders take priority in California over garnishments for consumer debts. The subsequent garnishment order is ineffective if a garnishment order is already in place for another debt.
- California Courts: Collecting a Spousal/Partner Support Order
- FindLaw: California Code -- Chapter 5: Wage Garnishment
- California Courts: Forms
- Nolo: California Wage Garnishment Law
- Pahl & McCay: Wage Garnishment Explained
- National Conference of State Legislatures: State Minimum Wages
- Legislative Counsel: Family Code
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