When a debt is in default to a federal agency, notably student loans for many Americans, a debtor’s wages can be garnished without a lawsuit through a process known as “Administrative Wage Garnishment” (AWG). This process is different from garnishments based on having a judgment against someone after a lawsuit, because the Treasury does not need to obtain a court order to have an employer withhold up to15% of an employee’s “disposable income.”
Now, there are specific rules surrounding these processes to get you to pay back the debt. For example, an employee must be at the current job for at least 12 months, and the employee left the previous job involuntarily through something like a layoff. But generally, they can take your money, right out of your paycheck, without taking you to court. And it can be frustrating and scary because the agency is in control of the money, and you are short and have other bills to pay.
The Debt Management Service
The Debt Management Service and their Office of Debt Management (ODM) is basically the Treasury’s collection agency. In addition to AWG, there are other processes that can be used to collect on debts owed to the government, such as taking tax refunds to apply to debts, called an “offset.” If you are a Veteran receiving disability compensation, or a retiree, your money can be garnished to satisfy an ODM debt. In fact, your entire monthly disability compensation benefit can be taken. If you receive a Social Security check, and are, or your student borrower is, in default, they can garnish your social security check. Not kidding here.
This post is meant to be a strong reminder that nobody should ignore federal debts. Again, getting a letter from a government agency can be frightening. Period. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the best known, and there are a ton of ads on tv for help with “tax debt.” But these other types of federal debt? Many people are surprised at the power these other agencies have. Not unlike the IRS.
If you are being garnished, and you do not owe a debt to the agency, my suggestion is to contact a lawyer immediately. You may be a victim of identity theft, or the treasury may have wrong information about the debtor, and you are unfortunately targeted. There are stories of two “John Smiths” with a single digit off on the Social Security or account number. Make sure you do not ignore the notices that you may think are just mistakes, you may end up with a paycheck surprise. Not in a good way.
Steps You Can (and should) Take
Student Loans- if you are more than a few months behind in payments, know that after 270 days they CAN intercept your tax return and garnish your wages. If you take steps, such as contacting the servicer, there are steps to take. If you are already in garnishment, get some legal or financial help to see what you need to do to “rehab” your account and stop the garnishment.
Other Federal Debts- similar advice, contact the Treasury Department in charge of collecting your debt, or get legal or financial help in dealing with the agency. For Veterans there may be an option for a waiver, or a payment plan so you receive a portion of your compensation while paying back principal debt.
Final tip. Remain calm and respectful. If you receive a letter, call the numbers on the letter. If not, here is the general contact site for the Treasury Collections Department. You can take back control of your money, even if you are being garnished by a government agency. Get a plan, get help if you need it, and you can get through it.
The information in this blog post (“post”) is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from The Law Office of Dawn K. Kennedy or the individual author, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.