California Wage Garnishment Limits

If my paycheck is garnished, do they have to leave me enough to live on?

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Bill's Answer: Answered by Daniel Cohen

A certain amount of income is exempt from attachment in a wage garnishment. The amount exempt varies by state. It makes a difference who is levying your paycheck. The amount that can be levied can also vary who is trying to collect from you. For instance, the IRS can take a larger percentage of someone’s income than an unsecured creditor, but even the IRS leaves a certain portion of a person’s income exempt from a levy.

A wage levy is not the only way a creditor can enforce a judgment. You want to make sure you know about bank levies and liens. Here is more detailed information about wage garnishments.

California Wage Garnishment

You mentioned you reside in California. California, like many states, follows federal law in terms of the maximum amount that can be garnished. Under federal law, the lesser of the following may be garnished:

  • The amount by which a debtor’s weekly income is greater than 30 times the minimum wage. The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, making the 30 hour weekly total $217.50. This leaves the debtor with something to live on, though it clearly can be less than is needed to meet minimum obligations.
  • 25% of disposable income. Disposable income is defined as the income that is left after all legally required deductions are taken from a person’s paycheck. This include Federal and State Taxes, FICA, State Unemployment and Disability Taxes , with “disposable income” defined as income left after legally required deductions from a person’s paycheck, such as FICA. Other obligations, such as voluntary contributions to retirement accounts, deductions for medical, dental or vision insurance, or contribution to a Medical Savings Account are not exempt and will be considered part of the disposable income.

This formula applies to most debts. As I mentioned above, some creditors are able to garnish at a higher rate. For instance, the IRS can garnish at a more severe level, as can a garnishment for delinquent child support.

Examine the detailed federal rules regarding garnishment in the Dept. of Labor's The Federal Wage Garnishment Law, Consumer Credit Protection Act's Title 3 (PDF), which includes a chart that lays out the legal limits of the garnishment. See also the Public Counsel document Wage Garnishment: A Guide to Understanding Court-Ordered Wage Garnishment and Your Options (PDF) to learn about California's garnishment rules.

In California, judgment-debtors who are about to have their wages garnished should read California form WG-003 (PDF) and then complete form WG-006 (PDF) to apply for an exemption. Do so immediately — a wage garnishment is much easier to prevent than unwind if you are exempt from garnishment.

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Comments (19)

Robert A.
Seaside, CA  |  February 12, 2014
Hello, I'm in California. I was told by my employer they received an earnings withholding order. I filed a claim of exemption and a financial statement with the levying officer. I was notified by my employer that the levying officer told them to stop the earnings withholding order. Two weeks later I received a copy of a "Memorandum of Costs After Judgement, Acknowledgement of Credit, and Declaration of Accrued Interests". It shows the post judgement amount of $55.00 for issuing the Writ of Execution and the Levying Officers fees. Will this mean I will have another Earnings Withholding Order placed on my wages for the original amount plus the $55.00? What I was asking is if the judgement creditor can refile for another Writ of Execution again? One other question I have is if my earnings withholding order has been stopped will I be able to have my earnings returned to me? The 25% really put me in a financial bind with day to day living expenses. Thank you very much.
February 12, 2014
Consult with a California lawyer who has consumer law experience. If you cannot afford a lawyer, contact Law Help CA or another California pro bono program to receive no-cost legal services.
Carlos B.
Modesto, CA  |  October 31, 2013
Last January my employer notified me that my wage was being garnished for $3,400. I figure that the garnishment might reach $4,000. But I had my wage being garnished for over $5,000 and I still having my wage garnished. I tried to call to get some information about my garnishment and how long this will last. I called the collection company and they have no information say they received less than half of the $5,000 taken out of my wages. How do I get information about the garnishment? The collection company cannot help me, and the state of California has no clue about the collection. They keep letting me know that my employer hasn't sent the funds to settle the collection. Do I need to call a lawyer to settle?
November 01, 2013
The facts in your message are unclear to me, and accordingly, it would be unhelpful for me to write more than the following: Your employer's payroll department may have the facts you need to answer your question. Ask to see copies of the garnishment order it received. Then work backwards from that information. If you reach a dead end, talk to a lawyer about filing a California WG-006 Claim of Exemption.
Ceiceli W.
Covina, CA  |  August 06, 2013
I live in California and my dad is having his wages garnished by a management corporation. They didn't notify my dad of this until July 1st and then they sent the process to go through on July 5th. My question is, are they able to do that? Because of the rug being flipped from underneath us they caused us to be late on our rent, we were forced to move out before an eviction and now we are currently homeless living in a motel. This can not be legal. My mom is trying to get the garnishes exempted but the process takes a while and we are currently running out of funds to stay in this motel. Please help and tell me if there is anything that we can do to stop these garnishments ASAP.

p.s. My dad's take-home pay was $1,200 bi-weekly and these garnishments are taking $600 of it. My mom gets SSI, and she receives only $1,000 on the 3rd of each MONTH. Anyone know of any kind of help?

p.s.s. We tried going to Social Services but because the gross income for my dad looks so good we don't qualify. They don't understand that we don't see any of the $1,200 anymore because of the garnishments.
August 07, 2013
Call your county bar association and ask for the names of the organizations that provide no-cost legal services to people with low or no income in your area. Make an appointment with one of the organizations, and ask your father to bring all of the documents and letters he has regarding the wage garnishment and your family's debts to his meeting. The lawyer he meets will advise him accordingly.
Mary Jane S.
Dublin, OH  |  February 23, 2012
I'm going trough a foreclosure in Ohio, because the second mortgage wouldn't let me short sale unless we bring $40K to closing, which we do not have. I offered less and they didn't accept. I need to move to CA at the end of the year for personal reasons. By Ohio law, they can repossess your house and come after you for the remaining debt after the foreclosure. Therefore, a lot of people who foreclose also declare bankruptcy. I spoke to a bankruptcy attorney, and she said she is not sure if once I move to CA, the second mortgage would be able garnish my wages. She said it depends on CA laws. We are talking about $90K debt after all fees, so if they can come after me in CA I probably need to declare bankruptcy. Can you tell me how CA wage garnishment law would effect me when I move?
February 27, 2012
Answering your question is difficult because the creditor(s) has (have) several options for handling the deficiency balance. Here are four I can think of:
  • Issue you a 1099-C, and abandon any collection efforts
  • Issue you a 1099-C, and sell your collection account to a collection agent for pennies on the dollar
  • Issue a 1099-C or not, and file a lawsuit against you in Ohio. It could then domesticate the Ohio judgment in California.
  • Issue a 1099-C or not, and file a lawsuit against you in California

If the creditor pursues legal action against you as a California resident, or chooses to domesticate an Ohio judgment in California, California wage garnishment rules apply. We outline California's rules in the original answer above.

Bryan S.
Colusa, CA  |  January 27, 2012
I have had 25% of my disposable wages garnished by the FTB for the past two years now. I am due in court and will likely lose a judgement in a few days (credit card collector brought suit against me). I'm concerned that the creditor might seek and win a wage garnishment order. Since I'm already having the 25% garnished to the FTB, do I have to worry right now that additional garnishments can be taken above that 25%? I don't have any money in the bank, but I'm afraid that the collector could come after my only possession of value, my car which is worth $7,000 to $8,000, and which I just received title to this week. I've considered putting the into an irrevocable trust, but I don't have confidence that that would be effective with so close to the court date. Do I need to worry that they could come after my car?
January 29, 2012
In general wage garnishments are limited to 25% of your income. Your car could be subject to a lien and possibly sold. Before transferring title, I recommend that you speak with a lawyer. I advise you to read the article about debt relief to explore possible strategies to deal with your debt.
Brian M.
San Francisco, CA  |  October 26, 2011
I owe California back taxes. In 2004 I deposited $10,000 into my checking account and it was automatically taken by the state. I closed this checking account. The $10,000 did not fully satisfy the debt. In 2006 I got a job and they began taking 25% of my pay. I was laid off in 2009, with my debt still not fully paid. I have had a new checking account for a few years, but never deposited anything more than a few hundred dollars. This month I got a new job and am paid on a 1099 basis. They want to direct deposit my first paycheck into my checking account. How can I find out if the state knows about this new checking account? How can I find out if they will take my entire first paycheck after it gets deposited?
October 26, 2011
Bank levies are not standing levies. When the IRS levies a bank account the funds, up to the amount owed the IRS, are frozen for 21 days, and then the funds that were in the account the day the levy hit are remitted to the tax authorities. This gives the individual some time to contest an unjust levy. Funds that arrive in the account the day after the levy hits are not frozen. I believe the time the account is frozen when the California Franchise Tax Board (CA FTB) levies your account is 10 days.

Bank levies can be issued repeatedly. So, when you are in levy status, you can never know when one will hit you. That being said, the odds of the levy hitting the exact day your direct deposit hits are slim. I suggest that you remove the funds as soon as possible, after the deposit is made. The fact that your account, even with only a few hundred dollars in it, has been free from levy, is a strong indication that they donít know about this account. A few hundred dollars would still have been taken, if they hit your account.

A separate concern should be about the CA FTB finding out who is paying you 1099 income. Once that is in their sites, they can garnish you at even higher rate than the 25% level at which they hit your previous jobís income. This is because 1099 income has less protections than W-2 income. 1099 income is essentially viewed as receivables. If the company that pays you by 1099 receives a levy notice, all of your income could be cut off.

I strongly recommend that you contact the CA FTB and work out a payment plan that will remove the threat of levy. Be careful about divulging your source of income, as it could lead to the CA FTB contacting the people that have contracted for your work. If your remaining balance is high, you may want to hire a reputable tax professional to speak on your behalf, ensuring that you don't say something that harms yourself.
Robert M.
Alta, CA  |  August 29, 2011
Can compensation be garnished if you are an independent contractor from the companies you contract from? Also is there a amount of earnings low enough in California that would not be garnished under any circumstance? My question concerns credit card debt bought by a outside law firm that is suing.
August 31, 2011
Let me start with something I am sure of. The IRS can most definitely garnish 1099 income and the effects of an IRS wage garnishment can be worse for a 1099 recipient than for a W-2 earner. IRS wage levies have to leave a minimum amount of income, based on the 668-W levy table. 1099 recipients income can be viewed as 'receivables' and anything due the recipient can be cut off by a notice of levy sent to the contractor's payor.

I believe it would be harder for a judgment-creditor to get your 1099 income, but it certainly may be possible. You should consult with an attorney, to accurately determine your exposure.
Trace E.
Santa Ynez, CA  |  June 10, 2011
Hello, I am a retired Los Angeles Fire Fighter. I recently had a levy placed on my checking account and $4,200 was instantly removed from my account by a credit card collection firm. I was told that fire fighter disability retirement benefits were exempt from any levies, liens or garnishments. According to the bank, a fire fighters disability retirement is not an "automatic exemption" and I would need to file a "claim of exemption" to try and stop it. Again, it was my understanding that police and firefighter disability retirement were automatically exempt. Is this true? Any advise would be greatly appreciated.
June 10, 2011
Social Security and retirement benefits are exempt from garnishment, generally speaking. In other words, these funds may not be intercepted while in transit to you, generally speaking.

However, you mentioned the funds were removed from your bank or credit union account, an action commonly called an account levy. In law, levy is different from a wage garnishment, although from the consumer's perspective this is a distinction without much of a difference.

First, ask your bank or credit union to add a notation to this account stating that it contains only funds received from Social Security and pensions, and may not be levied or garnished. Second, consult with a lawyer about filing an exemption so that the funds in question are returned to you.
Lastly, you should request that your Social Security funds are directly deposited into your account. There is a new rule, that is yet to be finalized, that exempts two months of your benefit award from a bank levy.
Fairfield, CA  |  June 07, 2011
I have a different issue with wage garnishment in CA. I have a court ordered garnishment on an employee who has both an IRS tax garnishment and a State of CA tax garnishment in front of me. The 2 added together do not equal 25% of her wages. Can I be a third garnishment for the amount remaining until it equals 25%?
June 07, 2011
If the judgment debtor earns more than the statutory minimum, for garnishment, and is being garnished at (to make up a number) 20%, then a subsequent judgment-creditor may garnish the remaining 5%. Therefore, the answer to your question is a qualified yes.
Sandra G.
Perris, CA  |  July 07, 2012
Do you know how many people do not work over 30 hours in a week and do not "make" that "minimum"???
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