Can Garnishments Get Taken From Your Bank Account Without Being Authorized?

by Patrick Gleeson, Ph. D., Registered Investment Adv
Your bank will not notify you before acting on a levy against your account.

A levy against your bank account gives your creditor the right to recover money awarded to her in court. A 2011 federal regulation, however, exempts several fund sources from the levy. State laws may exempt more. Before the bank or the sheriff's department hands the funds over to your creditor, you have at least 10 days to file an objection to the levy.

Garnishment vs. Levy

Strictly speaking, if the money is taken from your bank account, it's a levy, not a garnishment, which is an attachment against your wages. When your wages are garnished, a portion go directly to your creditor before your employer issues your paycheck; by law, however, a portion of what you have earned must go to you. A bank levy, however, is potentially more dangerous because pending the bank's investigation of the levy, it may freeze your account, in which case you cannot withdraw funds at all.

Necessary Court Order

Before a creditor can take money from either your wages or your bank account, the creditor must get a court order authorizing the action. You will always be notified of a court action pending against you and of the judgment of the court. If the judge rules against you, the notice will be titled "Notice of Garnishment" or "Notice of Levy." From that point on, you won't be notified further, nor is your authorization required by either your bank or the creditor. You'll simply get a paycheck for wages minus the garnishment amount, or you'll discover that your bank account is frozen and that checks written on the account are returned.

What Happens Next

Depending upon how much you owe, the bank freeze extends to some or all of your funds. Alternatively, in some jurisdictions, the levied funds may be removed from the account and held by the sheriff for 10 days before being forwarded to your creditor. This gives you a brief window to claim an exemption that prevents your creditor from receiving the funds.

Claims of Exemption

When you receive the Notice of Levy, it may include another document, the Exemptions from the Enforcement of Judgments. Otherwise, you can obtain the document from the court. The form lists exempt assets. These include any federal benefit payments and 75 percent of employment wages. You can also ask for an exemption on the ground that you need the money in the account for the basic necessities of life. You may have additional exemption rights under state law. The form must be returned with a postmark of 10 or fewer days from the postmark on the Notice of Levy.

About the Author

Patrick Gleeson received a doctorate in 18th century English literature at the University of Washington. He served as a professor of English at the University of Victoria and was head of freshman English at San Francisco State University. Gleeson is the director of technical publications for McClarie Group and manages an investment fund. He is a Registered Investment Advisor.

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