Living with credit

Sting of garnishment from years ago still lingers

Connie Prater

I have a confession to make.

In 1992, my wages were garnished. Presenting it as a confession makes it sound like it was something I’m embarrassed about. In fact, I am ashamed that it happened — given the fact that I’m now a personal finance writer and interview experts who warn people to avoid doing what I did those many years ago. Who hasn’t done something they regret? And making those early mistakes is how we learn to do it right the next time. It’s what we should encourage our children to do while they’re young and when the mistakes don’t lead to more serious repercussions.

For those who don’t know, a garnishment is when a creditor or debt collector goes to court and wins a judgment to collect money on an outstanding debt by collecting it directly from your paycheck. Employers receive a court order or summons to garnish a portion of workers’ wages and send them directly to creditors. Today, it’s more commonly used to collect child support payments from parents.

Head in the sand
Soon after I purchased my first home, I broke the lease on my apartment. Under the advice of my husband at the time, I moved my furniture, put the keys to the apartment in the slot of the manager’s office and walked away from the lease.

More than a year later, after my marriage had ended, I got a letter in the mail from a law firm I didn’t recognize. Something about owing money to that apartment building. I put that letter in a pile of junk mail and forgot about it. Then a few months passed and I got a letter from the court, sounding threatening and ominous about judgments. This time, I tucked it in my purse and carried it around in there for a long time.

The next thing that happened sure got my attention. My weekly paycheck was shorted by several hundred dollars. I called my company’s payroll supervisor with outrage in my voice. But the outrage quickly turned to a meek whisper when the woman said, “You should already know about this and have gotten papers on it.” I had, of course, but had buried my head in the sand.

My wages were garnished for about five weeks — until the money, about $1,500 or so — was paid in full. It was a good thing that I had money in savings to supplement what I lost in wages. I counted down the weeks until that debt was off  my back. When it was over, I got a letter from the attorneys representing the apartment building.

The letter reads: “Enclosed for your records is a Satisfaction of Judgment in the above matter. We shall now consider this matter closed.”

Of course, the garnishment went on my credit report as a ding. A few years afterward, I applied for a home mortgage and I took a hit. I got the mortgage, but at a higher interest rate. I also had to write a letter explaining the incident to the loan underwriters.

Zombie debt
I still have the letter from that law firm confirming satisfaction of the debt. It is tucked away with all of my important papers. I thought of it as I interviewed Kurt Johnson several months ago. Johnson heads the North American Collection Agency Regulatory Association (NACARA), a group of regulators that oversees debt collection investigations and complaints in 20 states.

During the interview, Johnson warned about the ‘zombie debt’ phenomenon — that’s when ancient debts that may or may not have been paid off are resurrected by debt buyers who begin collection efforts anew.

“I still have proof where I paid off my student loans,” Johnson told me. “I’ve seen cases where they came after someone after 18 years for a student loan.”

Johnson says: “How long should you keep documentation? Important documents with regard to settlement of debt or payment of significant debt should be kept with your long-term documents.”

He adds: “Educate yourself if you receive a paper or contact, don’t ignore it. If you receive a summons or judgment order or notification, read it. Often consumers wait until the judgment letter comes.”

Word to the wise
All good advice. I’ll keep my debt satisfaction letter forever, if I can — just in case the apartment lease fiasco comes back to haunt me.


See related: Ignoring credit card debt can lead to wage garnishment,  11 tips for dealing with debt collectors, Consumer credit woes mean debt collection boom

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  • Wow, thanks for sharing that story. Personal finance advice never goes out of style. I try to learn everything I can.
    Good post

  • Undecided

    I lived in a Texas house that had mold problems and caused health problems for my family. We walked away from it due to health concerns but we did try to do a deed in lieu of return of the house. The mortgage co. said it had to be at least 50k to be considered for this program. One and a half years later I rx’d a letter from a debt collector for 34k. The original mortgage was about 33k. The only income we rx is from Veterns and Social security disability. What is our next course of action. I was told the debt collectors cannot garnish disability income. Would the debt coll. be more understanding if an attorney sent a letter explaining our situation. I currently reside in N.M. If so, could you rec. an attorney in N.M. familiar with Texas law?

  • I suggest contacting the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (, an association of nonprofit consumer credit counseling agencies. They deal with cases just like yours all the time and will be able to recommend a course of aciton. You are correct that certain income, such as Social Security benefits, are protected from garnishment. See our article about how wage garnishment works:

  • Arthur

    I am 100% disabled and about a year I became unabled to pay a credit debt. The only income I have is disability and a small pension from the state goverment (maryland). Do I have any garnishment protection?

  • Arthur,
    Social security benefits (such as SSI for the disabled) are usually protected from garnishment.
    Here’s an article on how garnishment works that may be helpful to you:
    I’d also suggest getting in touch with a consumer credit counselor for advice about the credit card debt. They can help you contact the lender and work out a payment plan. Contact: for an agency near you.

  • Brenda Summers

    My wages were garnished 2 months ago for a student loan that I got in 1976 – 1982 – a Chicago university. I’m trying to work with an attorney to file for hardship BK-7, I filed BK-7 in 2009. Have anyone dealt with this issue?

  • Mary

    I just received a letter from a debt collector stating they were suing me and would be taking me to court for possible wage garnishment. I am separated–in the process of a divorce. Although I do get paid slightly more than the average in my city, I live paycheck-to-paycheck. (I do not have any savings) I do not splurge, I watch what and how I spend my money. I have cut many wants–cable, fancy phones, etc. I have a child in college and need to send them money as well for their expenses. What I receive from my spouse for child support is barely enough to cover part of my mortgage. While still together, he was in charge of the bills–which he obviously did not pay and unfortunately they are in my name. I cannot afford a lawyer and i fear that if they do garnish my wages, i will not be able to support my family. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  • Donna Kinsey

    I have a friend that already has a garnishment taken from his pay. Recently he has received a letter indicating another garnishment is being served. My question is can more than one company garnish wages at the same time? He will not have enough income to live on if this happens. Please help. Sincerely, Donna

  • Mike

    Mary, Some advice, you should have watched the bills more closely and not had them all in your name.
    Donna, yes they can take multiple deductions.

  • Kimberly Williams

    I am being sued by a creditor. I called and set up payment arrangements. My question is, if I keep up the arrangements can the creditor still garnish my pay? Also they want me to pay every payday and I really cannot afford to do this with out letting another dept default.I have tried to talk to the creditor about the arrangement and was told if I do not pay biweekly they will garnish my pay.
    Thank you,

  • rodney hutchinson

    My wages are being garnished from a apartment I never lived at and it was 16 years ago. They just now taking money out of my check. I never got a letter or court date. Is there anything I can do to get my day in court to prove my case in this matter .