Garnishment for Child Support or Alimony

Chapter 7: Section 6

General Rules and Procedures

To enforce alimony and child support obligations, the salaries of federal and postal employees, as well as retirees’ annuity payments and Social Security benefits, are subject to garnishment, under 42 U.S.C. 659. Similarly, their pay or annuity is subject to withholding under state law and under any other legal process brought by a state agency administering a program to enforce an individual’s legal obligations to provide child support and alimony. (Separate rules apply to child support and alimony orders affecting the Thrift Savings Plan; see the preceding section.)

While federal law does not preempt state or local law regarding the bringing of civil actions to enforce support and maintenance obligations, it sets maximums on the percentage of wage or benefit payments that may be subject to garnishment.

Legal orders that the government will honor include any writ, order, summons, notice to withhold income, or similar garnishment process. This includes attachments, a writ of execution, court-ordered wage assignments, or orders by a child support agency. Enforceable orders include those issued by a court (or court official) of competent jurisdiction or a state agency authorized to issue income-withholding notices under state or local law.

The Office of Personnel Management is authorized to comply with the terms of a court decree, order, or property settlement in connection with the divorce or legal separation of an individual who is eligible for benefits under the Civil Service Retirement System, under 5 U.S.C. 8345(j). Civil service retirement benefits must be specifically divided by divorce decree or court order to qualify for payment under this law. Former spouses of federal employees or annuitants may be entitled to receive all or a portion of the spousal survivor annuity or lump-sum refund that may become payable based upon the employee’s or annuitant’s service, under 5 U.S.C. 8339(j), 8341(h) and 8342(j). 

With only limited exceptions, these rights apply only to former spouses who were still married on or after May 7, 1985, to an employee or annuitant who retired, died, or took a lump-sum refund on or after that date. The statutes permit such a division of the survivor annuity to be made, subject to restrictions, by agreement between the employee and the former spouse at the time of retirement or within two years thereafter, or a division of the annuity or lump-sum benefit pursuant to a court order or court-approved property settlement incident to a decree of divorce or annulment. A court order or court-approved settlement pursuant to a decree of legal separation may divide the lump-sum benefit, but not the annuity.

Similar provisions establishing entitlement rights for certain former spouses to all or a portion of spousal survivor annuity benefits or lump-sum refunds payable under the Federal Employees Retirement System are in 5 U.S.C. 8417, 8445 and 8424(b). 

For the types of compensation subject to garnishment and for certain other garnishment procedures, see Garnishment in Chapter 1, Section 4.

Maximum Garnishment Amounts

Public Law 95-30 established the following general limitations on amounts that can be garnisheed to enforce a support obligation. Unless state or local law provides a lower limit, the maximum amounts subject to garnishment are:

• Fifty percent of the obligor’s aggregate disposable earnings for any workweek, where the obligor asserts by affidavit or other acceptable evidence that he or she is supporting a spouse, a dependent child (or both), other than the former spouse and/or child for whose support the order is issued. The amount may increase to 55 percent if the garnishment is to enforce a support order for a period that is 12 weeks prior to that workweek. An obligor is considered to be supporting a spouse, dependent child, or both, when providing more than half of their support.

• Sixty percent of the obligor’s aggregate disposable earnings for any workweek, where the obligor fails to assert by affidavit or otherwise establish that he or she is supporting a spouse, dependent child, or both, other than a former spouse, child, or both, for whose support the order is issued. The amount may increase to 65 percent if the garnishment is to enforce a support order for a period that is 12 weeks prior to that workweek.

Where obligors submit evidence that they are supporting a second spouse, child, or both, copies of this evidence will be sent by the governmental entity to the garnishor or the garnishor’s representative, as well as to the court or other authority together with notification that the obligor’s support claim will be honored. Garnishors who disagree with an obligor’s support claim should refer the matter to the court or other authority for resolution.

Procedures

The garnishment order or similar legal process should state on its face that it is meant to enforce an obligation to provide child support or to make alimony payments. The legal notice must include the garnishee’s name, date of birth, Social Security or retirement claim number, employment status, and the employing component and official duty station. If the information submitted is deemed insufficient, the legal order will be returned to the issuer with an explanation of the deficiency.

For active employees, a legal notice of garnishment or similar support order must be served on the appropriate agency office designated to receive such orders or, if none has been designated, on the agency head (offices designated to accept garnishment orders are listed in 5 CFR 581.501). If the notice is not directed to any particular official within the entity or if it is addressed to the wrong individual, the recipient must forward the legal process to the designated agent. However, valid service is not accomplished until the notice is received in the office of the designated agent. The government is not liable for any costs or damages resulting from an agency’s failure to timely serve process or to correct faulty service of process.

For retirees, the garnishment order should be sent by certified or registered mail, return receipt requested, to: Office of Personnel Management, Court Ordered Benefits Branch, P.O. Box 17, Washington, DC 20044-0017, phone (888) 767-6738 and ask for that branch.

When a valid order is received, the government will notify the obligor that legal process has been served. The notice will describe the maximum garnishment limitations, request evidence needed to determine the applicable limitation, and inform the obligor of the amount that will be withheld if he or she fails to submit such evidence.

The government will comply with valid legal orders unless they would require withholding of funds not eligible for garnishment. Where notice is received that the obligor has appealed either the legal process or the justification for the underlying alimony or child support order, payment of money subject to the legal process will be suspended unless the law of the jurisdiction prohibits it. The money will continue to be withheld and will be retained by the government until an order is received to resume payments or otherwise disburse the suspended amounts. Payments will not be suspended if the law of the jurisdiction where the appeal was filed requires compliance while an appeal is pending.

The government will not vary its normal pay or disbursement cycles to comply with a garnishment order. 

The government will comply with an order that requires withholding for the payment of attorney fees, interest or other costs, as long as it expressly provides for those payments and the award is within the authority of the court, official, or agency issuing the order.

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