Home Employment Law Massachusetts Wage Garnishment Laws

Massachusetts Wage Garnishment Laws

muccilegal February 29, 2024

Wage garnishment is the withholding of an amount of money from a debtor’s paycheck. The garnishing is done by the employer and the agreed amount is paid directly by the employer to the creditor who has been given the right to order the garnishment.

There are limits to wage garnishment in Massachusetts. Most creditors cannot simply ask an employer to withhold payments from an employee’s paycheck without going to court to have the debt repayment authorized. Even then, the state government places a clear maximum percentage limit on the amount of garnishment that can be allowed each paycheck. This percentage is of the ‘disposable’ weekly pay check amount, i.e. the weekly wage minus all compulsory payments such as payroll taxes.

Most creditors need to sue the debtor and obtain a court judgment to order a wage garnishment

Private, i.e. non-government creditors, typically need to seek to obtain a garnishment judgment from the court. They cannot approach a known employer and demand that the employer withholds debt repayments from an employee’s weekly, fortnightly, monthly wages or salary without obtaining the order. Typical garnishment applications to the court are made by banks and other credit or loan providers and retailers who have sold consumer items to the debtor on an installment plan or lease arrangement. When repayments have not been kept to the agreed schedule, the creditor may turn to the court to seek to have payments made directly by the employer.

Payments made in this way may continue until all debts have been repaid or the debtor succeeds in challenging the garnishment order or files for bankruptcy.

Creditors who do not need to seek a court judgment

Not all creditors need to seek to obtain a judgment from the court. Federal tax debts, federal student loans, alimony and other court ordered family support payments, such as child support payments, do not need to have a court judgment and therefore can be withheld in installments by an employer. Debt repayments may also be made by imposing a levy and debts may be recovered by deductions from a debtor’s bank account(s).

Massachusetts garnishment laws

Laws impose limits on how much can be garnished

The state has laws in place that impose limits on how much creditors can obtain from a debtor through garnishment. Judgment garnishment amounts are different from other garnishment types such as child support payments which are determined by federal garnishment laws rather than state laws.

Massachusetts garnishment laws impose a maximum, which is the lesser amount of either:

  • 15% of the debtor’s gross wages (i.e. before any mandatory payments are made such as payroll tax); or
  • The debtor’s disposable income (this is the gross income minus the mandatory payments) minus 50 times the state’s minimum hourly wage.

To take an example, let’s say that debtor X has a weekly gross wage of $1200. 15% of this is $180. The disposable income of debtor X is $1000 per week after mandatory deductions such as income tax and social security payments etc. Because the state minimum wage in 2024 is still $15, 50 times that amount is $750. The disposable income minus 50 times the minimum wage is therefore $250.

In this example, the total maximum garnishment payments that can be made to judgment creditors is $180 (the lesser amount between $180 and $250).

Garnishment laws imposed by the federal government

Child support payments that have been court ordered are typically withheld by an employer as a garnishment. The federal government allows up to 60% of a person’s wages to be paid in child support if that person has no other support payments to make. If the person is already making support payments to others, then a maximum of 50% can be garnished.

Federal tax debts and student loan debts can be withheld from an employee’s wages without the federal government having to seek court orders. There are relatively complex rules about how much can be taken in garnishment. Federal law allows an employee who is in debt to retain 30 times the federal minimum wage (currently $7.25) from garnishment.

Employers’ responsibility to withhold garnishment payments

Creditors who are seeking to recover debts are required to file an application for garnishment from a court. If the application is approved, they will obtain a court order allowing them to seek to garnish the debtor’s wages. Of course, they must need to find out who the debtor is employed with and how to contact that employer. Most loan arrangements probably involve divulging this sort of information before a loan is agreed to, to allow for potential garnishment if debts are not repaid on time or the debtor defaults on the loan.

An order for garnishment is then presented to the employer who is given a limited time to start withholding payments. Failure to withhold debt payments from the employee could mean that the employer is then deemed responsible for debt repayments.

Some employers may find that the extra administrative hassle of withholding garnishment payments is too much trouble and may instead seek to fire the employee. Federal law protects the employee from this type of employment termination as long as there is only one creditor. If there is more than a single creditor seeking repayments, then this might not stop the employee from being fired.

What an employee can do to limit garnishment payments

Options to respond to wage garnishment

If you have been advised that you are going to have your wage garnished, you have various options if you believe that the withholding of payments is unfair or illegal. It is advisable to seek legal advice about the garnishment orders if you believe it was unjust. An employment law attorney will be able to assess whether state or federal garnishment laws are being broken in addition to assessing whether the court order was justified. The main options available to the debtor are:

  • accept that the payments are legal and not challenge them;
  • challenge the legality of the payments if you believe that the debt applications should never have been accepted by the court or if the amounts breach garnishment laws;
  • apply for an exemption which puts a limit on how much garnishment can be made;
  • file for bankruptcy in order to avoid any debt repayments.

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