It comes as a surprise to many, but your spouse's creditors may be able to garnish your wages in some cases. This depends on several factors, including state law, the type of debt involved and how much you earn. With most debts, the creditor has to go to court and secure a judgment against your spouse first, then apply for a court order. Some creditors, such as the IRS, don't need a judgment.
If You Live in a Community Property State
Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin are community property states. In these states, spouses are equally responsible for each other's debts. So, if you live in one of these places, there's a chance that your husband's creditors can garnish your wages for his debts. The law makes exceptions, however. Creditors cannot come after you for debt that dates back to before your marriage. Mostly, they cannot come after you for unpaid child support. You also can sign a prenuptial agreement that says you're not responsible for your husband's debts, which should be legally binding in most cases.
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If You Live in a Common Law State
All the other states are common law states. In these states, your spouse's debts are normally his debts alone, not yours. This means that creditors can't garnish your wages for bills your spouse runs up. Again, there are exceptions. For example, if you co-sign a loan or your spouse puts the debt on your joint credit card, creditors can come after you. Creditors also may be able to collect from you for debts incurred to pay for necessities, such as food and shelter.
If You Have a Joint Account
Creditors can garnish bank accounts as well as paychecks. If you deposit your paycheck in a joint account with your spouse, it may be vulnerable to his creditors. Washington and California laws say that a joint bank account can be tapped to pay your spouse's child support obligation, but if you can show which part of the money is yours, that cash is off-limits. The vulnerability of joint accounts varies greatly between states.
Limits on Garnishment
Even if the creditor can put the bite on your wages, you still have some protection. If your after-tax wages are less than 30 times the federal minimum wage, your paycheck can't usually be garnished. A creditor can take anything over that figure, or garnish 25 percent of your after-tax earnings, whichever is smaller, according to federal law. Some states protect a higher percentage of wages from garnishment. Even if you have more than one creditor garnishing your paycheck, the total amount usually has to be under these limits.
- U.S. Department of Labor: Wage Garnishment
- Nolo: Debt and Marriage: When Do I Owe My Spouse's Debts?
- Washington State Legislature: Debts Incurred Before Marriage ...
- California Family Code: Sections 910-916
- Nolo: Bank Levies on Joint Accounts (Spouse)
- Wall Street Journal: Until Debt Do Us Part: Dealing with a Future Spouse’s Bills