When can a creditor garnish my wages, place a lien on my house, seize my bank account, or take my tax refund?

For the most part, a creditor must sue you, obtain a court judgment, and then solicit the help of a sheriff or other law enforcement officer to garnish wages. Even then, the maximum the creditor can take is 25% of your net pay or the amount by which your weekly net earnings exceed 30 times the federal minimum wage, whichever is less.

In two situations your wages may be garnished without your being sued:

  • Most federal administrative agencies (including the IRS and the Department of Education) can garnish your wages to collect debts owed to that agency.
    Up to 50% of your wages can be garnished to pay child support or alimony (even more if you don't currently support any dependents or if you are in arrears).

To place a lien on your house or empty your bank account, almost all creditors must first sue you, get a judgment, and then use a law enforcement officer. A few creditors, such as an unpaid contractor who worked on your house, can put a lien on your house without suing. And again, the IRS is an exception-it can place a lien or empty your bank account without suing first.

Your tax refund can never be taken unless the Treasury Department receives such a request from the IRS, the Department of Education, or a child support collection agency.

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