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Once a creditor has obtained a judgment in court against a debtor for a debt, the creditor can attempt to garnish the wages of the debtor. Wisconsin law places limits on the amount of money that can be garnished in a pay period. It is important to understand how the procedure works in order to protect wages from being improperly garnished. Some of the protections under the law require the debtor to take steps to notify an employer and the creditor that wages may be exempt from garnishment.


This information sheet provides general information for debtors. It is not comprehensive, and it is not a substitute for consulting a lawyer.


Filing a Garnishment


Once a creditor has a judgment from a court, it can begin garnishment proceedings. The creditor must pay a fee to the court to file a garnishment notice and is then issued papers to be served on both the debtor and the debtor’s employer (called the garnishee). The papers given to the garnishee require that the debtor's wages be garnished beginning in the pay period following receipt of the notice of garnishment. If the debtor takes no action, the garnishment will begin at that time.


The papers served on the debtor explain some of the possible defenses to the garnishment and include a worksheet for the debtor to use to determine whether his or her household income is below the federal poverty level. If the debtor believes that some or all of the wages claimed by the creditor are protected, an answer (a form included with the other papers served on the debtor) must be filed with the garnishee (debtor’s employer) at any time after the garnishment starts, but it should be filed as soon as possible. The garnishee (debtor’s employer) must mail a copy of the debtor's answer to the creditor within three business days after receiving it. It is then up to the creditor to request a hearing with the court if it disagrees with the debtor's answer and defenses. The court will then decide how much of the debtor's wages are exempt. If either the debtor's answer or the creditor's objections to an answer are raised in bad faith, the court can order the party making the bad faith claims to pay the other side's damages, costs, and attorney's fees.


A garnishment continues for each pay period that begins within 13 weeks after the notice of garnishment was served on the garnishee. The garnished wages must be mailed to the creditor between five and ten business days after the payday. If the debtor and creditor agree in writing, a garnishment can be extended for additional 13-week periods. A debtor may want to agree to this to avoid additional court costs and fees that would be added to the debt if the creditor had to pay an additional fee to the court to begin a new garnishment.


Exemptions and Defenses


Generally, up to 20% of a debtor's net wages can be garnished under Wisconsin law. Also, only one creditor can garnish a debtor’s wages at a time. (Additional garnishment actions will be in effect after the 13 weeks runs out on the first garnishment or the first judgment is paid.) If part of a debtor's income is being withheld for child support, the combination of support and garnishment can only be 25% of the debtor’s net wages. If the debtor's household income is below the federal poverty level, all wages are exempt. If the garnishment would put the household income total under the federal poverty level, only income in excess of the federal poverty level is subject to garnishment. A debtor can request a hearing to seek relief from the garnishment if he or she does not qualify for a complete exemption and the garnishment would result in the debtor and his or her family not being able to maintain the “necessities of life” (examples: rent, food, utilities, medical needs).


Debtors who have been receiving or have been determined eligible for any need-based public assistance (examples: W-2, Food Stamps, Medical Assistance, SSI) within six months prior to a garnishment are protected from garnishment.


These exemptions and defenses must be raised by the debtor by using the answer form attached to the notice of garnishment. The employer will simply garnish 20% of the net pay unless the debtor raises a defense on the answer form.


Protection from Employer Retaliation


An employer cannot fire a debtor, charge a fee, or take any adverse action because of a garnishment. If an employer does fire a debtor, the worker can sue for reinstatement, back wages and benefits, restoration of seniority, and attorney's fees.


The above is intended to provide general information only and is not a substitute for thorough and specific advice on an individual case. Depending on the complexity of your legal problem, you may need to consult an attorney for advice or representation.


This was prepared by the staff of Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc. on behalf of low-income clients and was funded by the Legal Services Corporation, Washington, D.C., 20005. Any opinions contained herein are those of the authors and should not be construed as those of the Legal Services Corporation.


Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc. does not discriminate on the basis of disability in the provision of services or in employment. If you need printed material interpreted or in a different form, or if you need assistance in using our services, please inform us. Deaf, hearing-impaired, or speech-impaired callers may reach us through the Wisconsin Telecommunication Relay System (711 or 1-800-947-3529).


July 2006

8 Legal Action of Wisconsin, Inc.



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