Bankruptcy protects your paycheck because it’s more powerful than a creditor’s garnishment court order.
A garnishment is effectively a court order which tells your employer to pay a portion of your paycheck to the creditor instead of to you. Except in rare circumstances, a creditor can’t get that garnishment order without first suing you and getting a judgment saying that you owe the debt. A judgment is the court’s decision that you do indeed owe the debt, how much you owe, and the amount of any additional costs. A judgment authorizes a creditor to use a variety of powerful ways to get money or property out of you to pay the debt, often (but not always) including through wage garnishment.
Bankruptcy stops wage garnishments at four stages of the process:
So your bankruptcy prevents most garnishments from happening. It stops future hits on your paycheck from a “continuous garnishment,” in which there is one garnishment order requiring money to be taken out of your paycheck until the debt is paid. And it also stops new garnishments on an old judgment, for example, when a creditor finds out about your new employer.
In preventing upcoming wage garnishments, bankruptcy USUALLY does so permanently. This happens when a debt is discharged (legally written off) in the bankruptcy case, as most debts are. Once a debt is discharged, under Section 524(a)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code an injunction is imposed against the collection of that debt every again, by any means including garnishment. So in those situations the bankruptcy filing stops the garnishment, forever.
So when are garnishments NOT stopped permanently? Garnishments are just temporarily stopped by your bankruptcy filing if the debt is NOT being discharged in the Chapter 7 case—such as certain taxes, most student loans, and a few other kinds of debts. The automatic stay preventing the garnishment is in effect only from the time the case is filed until the entry of the discharge about three months later. So, for example, if the IRS was garnishing your wages before the filing of your bankruptcy to collect on a tax that is not being discharged, the IRS can resume doing so after the discharge is entered (unless in the meantime arrangements are made with the IRS to make monthly payments on that debt, which hopefully you would be able to do after the discharge of your other debts).
If you are filing a Chapter 7 case, the automatic stay does not protect you from wage garnishment to pay child and spousal support obligations, for either current or back support. This means that an ongoing garnishment for support will not be stopped by a bankruptcy filing. And if there had been no garnishment earlier, those garnishments could actually start during your bankruptcy case.
Fortunately, Chapter 13 DOES stop garnishments for support, and provides a way to catch up on back support while under the protection of the bankruptcy court.
We’ve covered the effect of bankruptcy on future garnishments, including those that would have gone into effect right after the bankruptcy filing. But what about garnishment orders that go into effect just before filing bankruptcy? For example, what if you’re racing to file bankruptcy after a judgment is entered, but your bankruptcy is filed and the automatic stay goes into effect a day or two after the garnishment order is signed but before any money comes out of your paycheck? And how about after the money has been paid by your employer to the creditor, days or even weeks before your bankruptcy filing? Under what circumstance could you possibly get that money back? The next two blogs will get into these questions about present and past garnishments.