This is the fifth in a series of articles from NCLC that provide advice for families in financial difficulty. Other articles deal with medical debt, reverse mortgages, car repossessions, and debts owed to the IRS. Click here for a list linking to all the articles in this series.
The Consumer Debt Advice series is targeted directly to a consumer audience and includes information about legal rights and best strategies for dealing with debt. Readers are encouraged to share these articles with individuals who may benefit—clients, counselors, community groups, clergy, and others. Use the “email” icon at the top of this screen to reach your networks directly.
This article focuses on consumer rights and strategies to deal with your civil court judgment debt. Creditors and debt buyers bring millions of collection lawsuits which usually result in a court judgment for the creditor or debt buyer. A court judgment for the creditor triggers the creditor’s right to seize your wages, benefits, bank accounts, cars, and even your home. This article sets out consumer rights and strategies for responding to and limiting these creditor rights.
As discussed below, once a debt becomes judgment debt, it can quickly lead to loss of wages, benefits, bank accounts, personal property, and even your home. In extreme cases, it can even result in your incarceration. You have rights to limit these consequences, but to protect your property you must understand these rights and raise them aggressively when a creditor tries to take these steps.
Although you should have received notice of a lawsuit against you and notice of any ruling from the court that you owe a debt, surprisingly often consumers never know that a judgment was entered against them. The first they learn about the court ruling is when their wages are garnished, their bank accounts frozen, or their property seized. Always pay close attention to any legal documents sent to you so that you can head off the worst.
On the other hand, a creditor cannot seize your wages, bank account, or property unless and until it brings a law suit and a court enters a judgment against you. There are two exceptions to this.
- Secured creditors, such as your auto or mortgage lender, can seize their collateral if you get behind on your payments to them.
- The government can garnish your wages and seize tax refunds to repay student loans or other debt owed to the government.
But for credit card, medical, and other unsecured debt owed to private creditors, your wages, bank account and property are not at risk until a court issues a judgment against you.
Even if a court does enter judgment against you, there are still legal limits on how much or if any of your wages, government benefits, and money in your bank account can be seized and limits on whether property can be sold to pay off your debts. For many people, these limits mean that there is nothing that a creditor or court can do to make you pay a court judgment. This is called being “judgment proof” or “collection proof.”
To be collection proof, your income must be low enough that it is fully protected from garnishment, that all of the money in your bank account (if you have one) consists of government benefits or is otherwise protected from seizure, and that your personal property and home are all exempt from seizure. In that case, you do not have to worry about the judgment debt until your financial situation substantially improves. When your financial situation does improve, however, the creditor may be able to collect on its debt at that point.
If you are not collection proof, then you must pay careful attention to the implications of a court judgment against you. This article outlines how to protect your wages and property from seizure to pay your court judgment debt and other steps you should take when your wages and property are at risk.
Garnishment of Your Wages
When there is a court judgment against you, the creditor has the right to “garnish” your wages. This means that the creditor can get a court order requiring your employer to deduct a portion of your wages from your paycheck and send it to the court to be applied to the judgment debt. With the exception of a student loan debt or a debt owed the government, garnishment can take place only after the creditor obtains a court judgment against you.
After obtaining a court judgment, the creditor must file a request for garnishment with the court clerk, sheriff, or another local official depending on state practice. A notice is then issued to the “garnishee” (your employer), directing it to turn over a portion of your paycheck at a specified time. You must be given notice of the garnishment and you can request a hearing to prove that state or federal law protects your money from garnishment. In some states, you have the right to ask the court to reduce the amount of the garnishment because of hardship or because you have recently received public assistance.
A portion of your wages is protected from seizure. Federal law protects most of your wages from garnishment, and, if your wages are very low, your paycheck is entirely protected. “Wages” that are protected include commissions, vacation pay, sick pay, disability benefit payments, and pension and retirement payments. The first $217.50 from weekly take-home pay, after taxes and Social Security are deducted, cannot be garnished at all. This amount will go up if the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour goes up.
If your take-home pay is between $217.50 and $290 a week, then only the amount over $217.50 can be garnished. If your take-home pay is more than $290 a week, then 25% of your wages can be garnished. For example, if your weekly take-home pay is $250, then $32.50 a week ($250 minus $217.50) can be garnished. If your take-home pay is $600 a week, $150 a week (25% of your pay) can be garnished. A higher amount can be garnished if the debt is for child support or alimony. If your wages are garnished, your employer will be given instructions about how to make these calculations. You do not have to do anything to trigger the protected amounts, but you may want to double-check your employer’s calculations.
Importantly, this is the federal limit on garnishment. State law may limit garnishment even more or even prohibit wage garnishment. However, neither the federal nor state limits on wage garnishment may apply once your paycheck has been deposited into your bank account.
Federal law also protects you from being fired because you are being garnished for a debt. This protection does not apply, however, if your wages are being garnished for more than one debt.
If you are an independent contractor. Some workers are classified by their employers as independent contractors. (Your employer is probably treating you as an independent contractor if it is not deducting your Social Security contribution from your pay check.) Most courts rule that federal limits on wage garnishment do not apply to payments you receive as an independent contractor. In theory, a creditor could get an order seizing all of the payments to you as an independent contractor to repay a judgment debt. However, this will be complicated for the creditor and many creditors won’t even try to do so. In addition, some states protect independent contractor payments the same as wages.
Government Benefits Completely Protected from Garnishment
Many types of federal and state benefits are completely protected from garnishment. Examples are Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and veteran’s benefits (except to pay certain child support obligations). These benefits are protected no matter how much you receive. States also usually exempt TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and unemployment compensation benefits from garnishment as well. But once you put these benefits into your bank account, different rules apply.
Freezes and Seizures of Your Bank Account
A creditor can get a court order seizing money from any of your bank accounts to repay a judgment debt. Certain federal benefits, such as Social Security, SSI, and VA benefits, that are deposited in your bank account are protected (with exceptions for child support and debts owed to the federal government).
Federal law requires your bank to protect certain benefits that are direct-deposited into your account within the last two months. The bank is prohibited from turning over any Social Security, SSI, or VA benefits deposited within the last two months. The bank must send you a notice telling you what it is doing, but you do not have to take any steps to protect these benefits.
Social Security, SSI, or VA benefits deposited into the account more than two months beforehand are also protected—but the protection is not automatic. You will usually have to fill out papers and possibly go to court if you need to protect more than the last two months of benefits.
An easy way to protect all your Social Security, SSI, or VA benefits is to have them loaded onto a Direct Express prepaid card, instead of sent to a bank account. Those funds will then be automatically protected, no matter when they were received. You can sign up for the Direct Express card by calling 1-800-333-1795 or by visiting www.USDirectExpress.com.
As discussed below, other protections for your bank accounts require you to fill out papers and possibly go to court. For example, states usually protect workers compensation, unemployment compensation, and state employee retirement benefits from seizure, and some even allow you to protect wages deposited into your bank account. Some states have laws that protect a set amount in a bank account, such as $200 or $1,000, regardless of the source of the funds.
When a creditor obtains an order to seize your bank account, the bank typically will freeze the funds in your account, giving you a short period of time to claim that the funds are protected from seizure. The burden is on you to show that the funds are protected.
Usually you will find out that your funds have been frozen when you try to withdraw money, write a check, or use your debit card. Social Security, SSI, or veterans benefits directly deposited into your account during the last two months cannot be frozen. But other benefits can be frozen, and you must act quickly to show that at least some of the frozen funds are protected by law and should be unfrozen.
If some of your money on deposit is protected from seizure but some isn’t, it may be helpful to set up two accounts, one of which receives just protected funds. That way, it’s easier to prove that all the money in that account is protected. Spend the money in the unprotected account first.
Protecting Your Car and Personal Possessions from Seizure
In theory, after a creditor gets a court judgment, it can ask a sheriff to seize your car, household goods, or other personal property and then creditor would sell the property to repay the debt, often called “judgment execution.” In practice, most states limit this kind of seizure so much that a creditor has no financial incentive to have this property seized and sold. You have more to fear from wage garnishment or seizure of your bank account than from loss of personal property.
In many states, exemption laws protect your car and other personal property from seizure to pay a court judgment. (Exemption laws do not apply to secured creditors. For example, an auto lender can repossess your car if you do not keep up on your car payments.)
Exemptions laws vary considerably by state. Some laws specify that a specific dollar amount of all your personal property is exempt from seizure, such as $8,000. You can choose which items of your personal property you want to keep, as long as what you keep has a value of $8,000 or less. Others specifically exempt an item of personal property, such as a car, if its value is under a certain amount.
The value of your car or personal property typically is not determined based on what the property is worth, but how much “equity” you have in the property. Your equity is how much the property is worth now minus any amount you still owe on a loan that takes that property as collateral. For example, if your car is worth $10,000, but you owe $7,000 on your car loan, your equity in the car is only $3,000. A $3,000 property exemption would fully protect your $10,000 car from seizure to repay a judgment debt. Remember, however, that if you do not keep up on your payments for the $7,000 car loan, the auto lender can still repossess the car.
States may list certain types of personal property that are totally exempt from seizure, no matter how much money they are worth, such as tools and supplies required for your occupation, clothing, a bible, and certain household goods.
Some creditors or their attorneys or collection agents may try to force you to turn over property that by law is exempt from seizure, pointing to small print in the contract that says you agreed to waive rights under state exemption laws. Do not give in—these contract provisions are illegal and unenforceable.
If the creditor asks a sheriff to seize personal property that is exempt, file a notice of exempt property or take similar steps specified by your state law. In many states, you will need to file papers with the sheriff or a public official by a certain deadline in order to get the benefit of an exemption. The sheriff also cannot seize property in your possession which does not belong to you. To stop its seizure, the property’s rightful owner may have to file a declaration of ownership with the appropriate office.
If the sheriff is able to properly seize your property, it will then be sold at public auction, and the part of the proceeds that are not exempt will go to the creditor to help pay off the judgment. These auctions are usually poorly attended and bring low bids. For this reason, creditors rarely seize used household goods, which will have minimal resale value. If property is sold at auction, you or your friends can attend the auction and re-purchase the possessions at a bargain price. After a sale, if the sale proceeds are not enough to pay the judgment in full, the creditor may keep trying to collect the remainder.
Court judgments remain on the books for many years. Even if a creditor does not try to seize and sell your property after obtaining a judgment, it still may try to do so years later.
Because state exemption laws are complex, you may want to get professional help to understand which items of your personal property are subject to seizure. Look also for a guide to exemption laws for your state, which may be available from the local bar association, a legal services office, or a nonprofit consumer credit counseling agency. Make sure the guide is up-to-date.
Protecting Your Home from Seizure
Your home is at risk of foreclosure if you do not keep up on mortgage payments. Your home is also at risk of being sold if you owe a judgment debt, but that risk is much smaller. When a creditor obtains a court judgment on a debt, even just credit card or medical debt, the creditor can then put a lien on your home for the amount of the debt. With a lien in place, the creditor can then force a sale of your home or the creditor can simply hold onto its lien and wait for you to sell the home before trying to collect on the lien.
In some states, if husband and wife own a home jointly, the home cannot be seized to pay the debts that only one spouse owes. On the other hand, if both spouses are obligated on the debt, the judgment creditor can force a sale.
Most states have a homestead exemption that protects your home from being sold to pay a judgment debt as long as your equity in the home is less than a certain amount. While some states protect $100,000 or more, many states protect less. And few states completely prohibit a creditor from forcing the sale of your home to pay a judgment debt, no matter how much the home is worth.
A homestead exemption can protect your home from seizure based on a judgment debt. However, a homestead exemption does not protect you if you are in default on a first or second mortgage, on a home equity line of credit, or on any other debt if your home is collateral for that debt. In addition, in some states, to benefit from a homestead exemption, you must file a declaration of homestead with your registry of deeds office. In a few states, the declaration must be filed before the credit is granted. If you live in a state where a declaration is required, you should always file it as early as possible. In other states, the protection is automatic.
The homestead exemption is a powerful protection. The exemption’s dollar amount applies not to your home’s value, but instead to the equity in your home—home equity is your home’s present value minus the amount you owe on your first and second mortgages as well as any home equity lines of credit or other loans if your home is collateral for the loan.
- Mr. J lives in a state with a homestead exemption of $75,000.
- His home is worth $200,000.
- He has $100,000 in principal still due on his first mortgage.
- And Mr. J has $25,000 owed on a home equity loan.
- The total secured debt on his property = $125,000.
In this case Mr. J’s equity in his home is $200,000 - $125,000 = $75,000.
Since the homestead exemption is $75,000, his home is fully protected. A creditor cannot force the home to be sold to pay a judgment debt.
If Mr. J’s home increases in value to $220,000, and if the total secured debt on his property stays the same, then his equity increases to $220,000 - $125,000 = $95,000. The homestead exemption of $75,000 no longer protects all of Mr. J’s equity. The creditor can force a sale.
The first $100,000 from the sale goes to pay off the first mortgage holder. The next $25,000 pays off the home equity loan. Mr. J. keeps $75,000, the amount of the homestead exemption. After these deductions from the sale price, the judgment creditor gets whatever is left up to the amount of the debt. If there are still any sale proceeds left over, those go to Mr. J.
Even though the home is worth $220,000, the creditor under such facts will probably not try to sell the home to satisfy its lien. If the forced sale of the home only brings in $210,000 and selling expenses are $10,000, then there will be nothing left for the judgment creditor. The judgment creditor instead may wait until Mr. J sells the property, since the judgment creditor’s lien stays on the home for many years. When Mr. J sells his home, anything Mr. J clears over $75,000 (after paying off the first mortgage and home equity line of credit) goes to pay off the judgment creditor’s lien, up to the amount of the debt.
One possible way of getting rid of judgment liens is to file for bankruptcy. To the extent the property is exempt when you file for bankruptcy, the lien can be permanently removed.
The Debtor’s Examination and Debtor’s Prisons
There are no debtor’s prisons in the United States, but you can still be imprisoned if you do not show up for a debtor’s examination. After obtaining a court judgment, a creditor can ask a judge to order you to appear in court or in the office of the creditor’s attorney to answer questions about your income and assets to help the creditor find income or property that the creditor may seize. In some states this procedure is called a debtor’s examination, but the procedure goes by other names in other states. Some creditors routinely request a debtor’s examination. Others never do.
A debtor’s examination is a court-ordered appearance. Failure to show up can result in arrest, citation for contempt, and a jail sentence. A notice to appear for a court examination should never be ignored. Always appear or ask the court in writing for a postponement. Courts usually grant a postponement if the creditor agrees to the request or if you have a good reason.
In responding to a notice of a debtor’s examination, review your assets well before the examination. Determine if all your property is protected by law and if all your income is exempt from garnishment. If so, immediately tell the creditor’s attorney listed on the notice. This may be sufficient to get the creditor to drop the request for an examination since it will just be a waste of everyone’s time. But make sure to get this in writing—do not rely on an oral promise that the examination will be dropped.
If there is an examination, be careful how you answer questions since your answers are made under oath and often are recorded by a court reporter. Lying under oath is perjury, which is a crime punishable by jail. On the other hand, do not volunteer information until you are asked for it. If the examination reveals that you have assets or income not protected by law, the creditor can obtain court orders allowing it to seize those assets or income.
In some states, judges also have the authority to order debtors to make payments on the judgment debt. If you do not pay, the judge can hold you in contempt of court and put you in jail. But even in these states, you must be given an opportunity to prove that you do not have the financial ability to make the payments.
If you have property that can be seized to pay a judgment debt, consider “exemption planning” that maximizes the protection of your state’s exemption laws by converting property that can be seized (for example, cash) into property that cannot be seized (for example, household goods or your home).
For example, Mrs. Q has $10,000 in equity in her home and $10,000 in a bank account. Her state has a $20,000 homestead exemption and lets her exempt $3,000 in cash. Her home is thus completely exempt from seizure by a judgment creditor, but $7,000 in her bank account is at risk of seizure.
Instead of losing $7,000 to the creditor, Mrs. Q can prepay the mortgage by $7,000. Her equity in the home increases from $10,000 to $17,000, but her home is still protected by the $20,000 homestead exemption. Her remaining $3,000 in cash is fully protected by the state’s $3,000 cash exemption.
Courts often—but not always—rule that exemption planning is valid. Exemption planning is different than an improper transfer of property where you try to give away property to a friend or relative or sell it for a less than it is worth to someone who will later return it. Creditors can have these bogus transfers cancelled as “fraudulent transfers” or “fraudulent conveyances.”
Workout Agreements to Protect Wages and Property
If your wages, bank account, personal property, or home is at risk from judgment debt, you can approach the creditor or whomever is collecting the debt about a “workout” agreement, even after a court judgment is entered against you. Offer to pay all or a portion of the amount due, over a period of months or even years. The amount you offer to pay should be directly related to what the collector can seize. Do not offer to pay $3,000 over twelve months when the only items the creditor could seize have a market value of $500.
Always get a workout agreement in writing. The written agreement should excuse you from attending any debtor’s examination that has been scheduled and should contain a promise not to use wage garnishment or seizure of your property as long as you continue to make payments. Also ask for an agreement to waive the remainder of the debt if part is paid. Some creditors accept partial payment if they know they can’t get payment in full. For the creditor, some payment is better than none.
Bankruptcy Is the Most Powerful Way to Protect Wages and Property
The most powerful way to prevent loss of wages or property from a judgment debt is to file for bankruptcy. The bankruptcy will immediately stop any seizure and may allow you to keep your property permanently.
For More Information
NCLC’s Collection Actions (4th ed. 2017), updated at www.nclc.org/library, is a detailed legal treatise covering all aspects of lawsuits to collect on consumer debt, including defending the lawsuit, setting aside a default judgment, and responding to creditor remedies. Four chapters address protecting wages and benefits and bank accounts from garnishment, protecting the home and tangible personal property, and debtor’s examinations and imprisonment for debt.