In Florida, creditors (people or companies that you owe) are permitted to take, seize, or “garnish” your wages to pay debts that you owe. If a creditor sues you and wins to recover the remainder of your debt, they will obtain a “Final Judgment” against you. It is important to know that a Final Judgment is valid against you for up to 20 years.
The creditor can take steps to try to collect the money you owe. This can be done by taking a portion of your wages and/or take money from a bank account using a court-ordered “Writ of Garnishment.”
WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS?
A wage garnishment is a court order that requires your employer to withhold money from your paycheck and send it directly to your creditor. Different types of debt have different rules for wage garnishment, with limits as to how much your paycheck may be garnished.
Some common types of wage garnishment are:
- Child support.
- Student loans.
- Unpaid court costs.
- Credit card bills.
- Medical bills.
Before a creditor can demand that your wages be garnished, they must obtain a court judgment stating that you owe the creditor money. This means that the creditor must file a lawsuit against you, win, and obtain this judgment against you.
The exceptions to this rule are for:
- Unpaid Income Taxes
- Court-ordered child support that is past due
- Past due student loans
Assets are things that you own.
There are some assets you can protect once a creditor obtains a judgment for wage garnishment. The idea is that you should have enough money from your paycheck to cover your living expenses. The most common assets exempt from wage garnishment are:
- Homestead – home you own and live in
- Head of Household wages are generally protected (You are Head of Household if you provide at least 50% or more support to a child or other dependent.)
- Wages up to $217.50 a week
- Vehicle valued up to $1,000
- Social Security Income (SSI, Disability, Retirement)
- Veteran’s Benefits
- Public Benefits (Welfare)
- Child Support
- Personal property valued up to $1,000, or when you are not claiming homestead exemption, up to $4,000
If you are subject to more than one garnishment, the total amount of garnishment that can be made against you is limited to 25% of your income. In Florida, the state laws for garnishment are the same as the federal laws for garnishment.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO?
If you want to stop your wages or money from being garnished, you must complete a form for Claim of Exemption and request a court hearing to exempt your wages from garnishment. The form needs to be filed with the court within 20 days of receiving the Writ of Garnishment, which is the order requiring a creditor to withhold your wages or money. If you do not file the form within 20 days, you may give up your right to this exemption.
For more information about exemptions, see the Florida Bar website.
A judgment creditor is a creditor that proved in court that you owe money. The judgment creditor has the right to challenge your exemption within 8 to 14 days of receiving your Claim for Exemption, depending upon when they received the documents. If the judgment creditor challenges your exemption, a hearing will be scheduled. You may ask the court to dissolve the Writ of Garnishment without a hearing if the judgment creditor:
1) does not object to the Claim of Exemption, and
2) if the judgement creditor does not request a hearing within the required time frame.
If you own the home you reside in, it is protected from all creditors, except the creditors that hold a mortgage or lien against it. Also, up to one-half acre of land is exempt from wage garnishment and protected from a forced sale if you live in an incorporated area. This also applies to mobile homes if you own the land. More property is protected if you live in an unincorporated area — up to 160 acres of homestead property.
You may claim an exemption of up to $1,000 of the value of your vehicle. This means your vehicle cannot be taken to satisfy a judgment unless the value of the car is greater than $1,000 — less all debts for which the vehicle is collateral.
An Affidavit for Exemption of a motor vehicle must be filed with the court within 15 days of receiving the Writ of Garnishment. In the Affidavit for Exemption, you must also provide a list of other personal property that you own. If you do not file the Affidavit for Exemption within the 15-day time frame, you may be giving up your right to this exemption. As a result, you may lose your vehicle to satisfy the debt.
You may claim a personal property exemption can be for up to $1,000 of personal property. Property is valued at “yard-sale” value and not what it would cost to replace the property. This exemption is increases to $4,000 if you do not have a homestead exemption.
If a judgment is against only you and not your spouse, your spouse is entitled to protect his/her interest in the property. Property that is held between two married people is called “tenancy by the entirety” and the property cannot be divided. This means property that you both own is not subject to the claims of creditors of either spouse individually. This applies to real property (real estate) as well.
Filing for Bankruptcy will stop many types of wage garnishments. If your property does not fall into one of the exemptions, you may want to consider bankruptcy to protect your assets.
WHAT TO CONSIDER BEFORE TAKING ACTION.
You MUST take action immediately if anyone attempts to take your money or your property. If you do not act in a timely manner, you may be giving up available protections that the law provides you.