Individuals in deep debt often experience considerable fear. Unfortunately, some creditors will take advantage of the anxiety and stress that accompany debt. For example, a credit card company may threaten to garnish your wages if you do not pay. But can they really do that? What is legal according to Florida law?

Understanding the law can help you remain calm as you make choices to pay off your debt or consider filing for bankruptcy.

The legal process for wage garnishment

While a creditor may threaten you with wage garnishment, they cannot legally follow through until they have sued you, won in court and gotten the judge’s approval for garnishment as a way to collect the debt. Unless you have been served with legal papers, know that your wages are safe for now. However, your credit report will suffer, and this could affect your ability to apply for a loan, buy a house or even rent an apartment.

If you do receive notice that a creditor is filing a lawsuit against you, it is in your best interest to contact a lawyer immediately. Failure to appear in court to present your case could result in a de facto judgment in your creditor’s favor.

Exemptions from garnishment

There are certain circumstances in which your wages are exempt from garnishment in Florida. In such a case, a creditor will not be able to win a suit against you and proceed with garnishing your wages. For these exceptions to apply, you must appear in court to establish your role as “head of a family.”

  • If you qualify as the “head of a family” and your earnings are less than or equal to $750 a week, you are exempt from wage garnishment. (A “head of family” is anyone providing more than 50% of support for a dependent child.) This is to protect the welfare of the young and innocent.
  • Even a “head of family” whose earns more than $750 a week cannot be subject to wage garnishment unless they agree to it in writing.

Protections from excessive garnishment

There are also federal protections that preserve your income should you lose a lawsuit and find your wages are under fire. Federal law prevents excessive garnishment under the Consumer Credit Protection Act, which states that no more than 25% of disposable earnings can be garnished or that the garnished amount cannot exceed thirty times the Federal minimum wage limit.

While your debt may feel out of your control, you can take measures toward a solution. The most important things to do are to educate yourself on legal processes, research solutions—which may or may not include bankruptcy—and always respond to legal documents promptly. Your instinct may be to avoid your creditors, but you don’t want to find yourself in a scenario where wage garnishment is a possibility. Open your mail, listen to your messages and remain vigilant. You can get through this.