When a couple divorces, the court may order one party to make periodic payments to the other. This ensures that both individuals enjoy the same standard of living that they experienced prior to the divorce. These payments, known as “alimony,” are not optional once ordered by the court and can be enforced through garnishment in any state.
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Garnishment occurs when an individual’s wages, bank accounts, or other benefits are seized in order to satisfy a debt. Not all states allow creditors to intercept wages or pull funds directly from a debtor’s bank accounts. Alimony, however, is one of the exceptions to this rule.
The U.S. Department of Labor regulates how much can be garnished from an employee, depending on his income. You may have up to 60 percent of your ex-spouse’s wages garnished for alimony payments if he is not supporting another spouse and 50 percent if he is. If your ex-spouse is a minimum of 12 weeks behind in his payments, you may garnish an additional 5 percent.
Before you can garnish your ex-spouse’s wages or bank accounts for unpaid alimony, you must sue her and obtain a court order allowing you permission to garnish. Once you have your court order, you can direct the sheriff’s department to serve your ex-spouse’s employer or bank with the garnishment order. You must know where your ex-spouse is employed or where she banks in order to serve the garnishment order. Should your ex-spouse change employers or banks, you must return to court and request a new garnishment order.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury states that although federal benefits--such as Social Security, tax refunds, and government retirement pensions--are often exempt from garnishment, these benefits will be subject to garnishment if an individual owes unpaid alimony. Garnishing your ex-spouse’s federal benefits requires you to obtain copies of the legal judgment against him and the court order granting you garnishment permission. You must send copies of this documentation to each federal agency from which you expect your ex-spouse to receive payments.
Depending on the original divorce decree, you may receive alimony payments for a preset period of time or indefinitely. Although alimony laws vary by state, short-term marriages are more likely to result in a preset period of alimony payments while marriages lasting ten years or more can result in one party paying the other alimony for an indefinite period of time. If your alimony agreement is no longer in effect, you may still use garnishment to collect any alimony that has not yet been paid.
Unless you and your ex-spouse agreed to nonmodifiable alimony payments, she may return to court at any time and request that the court either terminate or modify her alimony obligations based on a change in income. This will affect the amount you can garnish. In addition, if you remarry or cohabitate with someone else, you may lose your right to receive alimony payments--through garnishment or otherwise.