Can Wages Be Garnished for Civil Judgments?

When a debtor owes a creditor money, the creditor often obtains a civil judgment against the debtor for the money owed. Once the creditor has a judgment against the debtor, the creditor must still collect on the judgment through post-judgment proceedings. One option, in most cases, is to request a wage garnishment against any wages the debtor earns. Most wages and income are subject to garnishment; however, there are federal and state exemptions that may be available to a debtor.

Filing a Civil Lawsuit

A civil lawsuit is often initiated by a plaintiff in an effort to obtain a monetary judgment against a defendant. A civil lawsuit may be filed in a small claims court or a higher court, depending on the basis of the claim and the amount in question. The defendant is then notified of the lawsuit and afforded an opportunity to answer the complaint in writing.

Entry of Judgment

If the parties to the lawsuit cannot agree on a resolution, the case will eventually be scheduled for a trial. At trial, the judge or jury will decide whether the defendant does, indeed, owe the plaintiff money and the amount owed. A judgment will then be entered against the defendant for the amount owed. A judgment is a legal determination, or order, that becomes part of the court record as well as part of the public record.

Executing on a Judgment

After a judgment has been entered, the plaintiff must wait out the appeals period--generally 30 days. Once the time for the defendant to appeal the court's decision has expired, the plaintiff may return to court and try to execute on the judgment. There are a variety of legal mechanisms available to execute on a judgment depending on the jurisdiction where the judgment was entered. Popular options include wage garnishment or execution against personal property owned by the defendant. A wage garnishment, if approved by the original court, will order the defendant's employer to withhold a certain dollar amount or percentage from her paycheck each pay period to be applied toward satisfaction of the judgment.


Although most wages are subject to garnishment for a civil judgment, there are a number of federal and state exemptions that may apply to prevent, or limit, garnishment. Certain federal benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income, cannot be garnished. In addition, many states protect head of household wages, limit garnishment amounts or ban garnishment altogether. A defendant who is subject to wage garnishment should check both federal and state laws to determine if any exemptions apply.