District of Columbia Wage Garnishment Laws

Garnishment is a legal remedy that provides a way for creditors to collect from debtors who do not voluntarily pay. A court order is sent to a third party, called a "garnishee," which has possession or control over some of the debtor's money; the garnishee is directed to send the debtor's money to the creditor, for the debt. A well-known type of garnishment is wage garnishment, when part of the debtor's wages or salary is garnished for the creditor.

Since garnishment is a legal remedy, a creditor needs a court order to garnish wages. That means it needs a court judgment in its favor. That in turn means that the creditor has to sue the debtor and win, which is what establishes a legally enforceable right to the money. (Note: the IRS does not need to sue first to garnish for taxes.)

Garnishment can be used for any debt, including debts from consumer transactions or credit cards, from contracts or promissory notes, tax debts, alimony or child support obligations, or even debts resulting from tort lawsuits (e.g. accidents or misconduct).

District of Columbia Garnishment Exemptions and Non-Exemptions

Social Security is established by federal law, and federal law protects it. Under federal law, it can be garnished for child support, alimony, and debts owed to the federal government (e.g. income tax), but for no other purpose.

States may carve out other exemptions—or protected categories of income—and while D.C. is not a state, it has been allowed to do so, too. However (in keeping with its "less than state" status), it has fewer exemptions than most of the 50 states.

  • Pensions: There is no protection for private pensions or retirement benefits; and even for public employees, only school teacher and judge pensions are protected.
  • Government workers: Government worker salaries enjoy protection from garnishment in the District of Columbia.
  • Public assistance or benefits: all the principal kinds are protected, including workers' compensation; unemployment compensation; aid to the blind, elderly, and disabled; aid to families with dependent children; general assistance; and crime victim compensation.
  • Insurance and annuities: Many kinds are protected, including: fraternal society benefits; disability benefits; group life insurance proceeds; and life insurance, if the policy states that the proceeds are protected from creditors. In addition, other kinds of insurance benefits or proceeds may be protected, at least up to a certain modest monthly amount, so District debtors receiving insurance benefits or proceeds should check to see whether—and to what extent—their benefits are exempt.
  • Other earnings: Up to $200 per month of nonwage earnings, for the two months leading up to the issuance of a writ or order, of a head of household who lives or earns the major part of his/her livelihood in D.C., or $60 per month of someone not the head of a household, will enjoy some protection from garnishment.

District of Columbia Maximum Threshold

Not surprisingly, the District of Columbia follows federal law for determining the maximum amount garnished. The lesser of—

  • 25% of disposable income—total of all garnishments, not per garnishment
  • The amount by which a debtor's weekly income exceeds 30 times the minimum wage

—may be garnished.

The reason for these limits is to make sure that a debtor is left with enough to live on. For garnishment purposes, "disposable income" is effectively almost all a person's income, since it is ALL income remaining after taking out only legally required payroll or paycheck deductions, such as FICA.

Also, note that tax and child support obligations allow greater garnishment, up to 50% or even more of a person's income, bypassing the usual 25% cap on garnishment.

District of Columbia Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is the time period a creditor has to bring a lawsuit or an action to enforce a judgment. The time period to sue depends on the cause of action or type of debt. Common statutory periods for consumer debts in the District of Columbia are:

  • Oral (verbal) and written contracts: 3 years
  • Open accounts (credit cards): 3 years
  • Sale of goods: 4 years

Remember: the creditor has to first sue, win, and obtain a judgment before seeking garnishment.

Once the creditor has a favorable judgment, if the judgment was granted by a District of Columba court (called a "domestic judgment"), the creditor then gets another 20 years, or two decades(!) to enforce it. This lets the creditor wait a long time see if the debtor gets on good-enough financial footing that it is worth taking action. (If a creditor is looking to enforce a "foreign judgment," or one granted by a non-District Court, it has however long the state which provided the judgment allows for enforcement.)

Writ of Garnishment in the District of Columbia

When thinking about garnishment, always remember that the creditor has already won in court and obtained a judgment. That means that the debtor already had his or her opportunity to mount a defense to the debt—and lost.

Since garnishment is merely a process for enforcing an already-established debt, the debtor's involvement in it is often minimal. The creditor applies to the court for garnishment, in order to enforce the judgment it already has. In this application, the creditor states that money is due to it, according to the judgment; garnishment is necessary in order to collect; and some garnishee (for example, the debtor's employer) has money belonging or owed to the debtor (for example, the debtor's salary or wages), which can be used for the debt.

Documents are served on the garnishee, which will require it to answer, verifying that it has the debtor's money. The garnishee can challenge incorrect assertions in the creditor's application for garnishment, such as—

  • it can show that it pays the debtor less than creditor claimed
  • it can show that the debtor is no longer employed by the garnishee and that nothing is owed
  • it can show that it cannot even identify any employee by the debtor's name

—but the garnishee cannot challenge the obligation to garnish debtor's money (if it has any) for a creditor in order to satisfy a valid judgment. Unless a debtor can successfully challenge the garnishment or the underlying judgment on some ground, a writ or order for garnishment will be issued. More on Stopping Wage Garnishment in Washington D.C.

Getting Legal Help

If the judgment on which garnishment is based was fully and fairly litigated previously, and if there is no mistakes or errors in the creditor's application for garnishment, the debtor's best bet to challenge the garnishment will be based on legal procedure (rather the substance of the debt), such as whether the garnishment is being sought within the statute of limitations.

Alternately, the debtor can try to show that its income comes from exempt sources, and so is not subject to garnishment. The less income potentially subject to garnishment, the less that can be garnished

If, on the other hand, there were serious or significant errors in the garnishment itself (e.g. the wrong debtor is named; or previous payments are not being credited) or in how the judgment had originally been awarded (such as, for example, the debtor not having had the chance to even mount a defense to the debt, because the creditor did not provide proper notice of a lawsuit), those could provide grounds for a challenge to the substance of the garnishment or the judgment.

In any event, the assistance of a lawyer could represent the margin between winning and losing.

For more information:

District of Columbia municipal code[http://government.westlaw.com/linkedslice/default.asp?SP=DCC-1000]

FAQ sheet about Federal garnishment rules[http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs30.pdf]

Social security and garnishment[http://www.ssa.gov/deposit/DDFAQ898.htm]

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