How Wage Garnishment Laws Affect Many Texans

Although wealthier Texans may build up significant savings and retirement accounts by middle age, most residents must keep working far longer to meet their individual and family needs. And if unexpected family or medical crises occur creating new financial emergencies, some people may face wage garnishments. Fortunately, Texas offers strong protection against many types of creditors.

Here’s a brief review of the most common types of wage garnishments pursued in Texas, basic terms you’ll need to know regarding this field – and references to special concerns you may need to discuss with your Houston business law attorney to fully protect your rights.

Important terminology related to attaching employee wages

  • Wage garnishments. In Texas, this term is often used interchangeably with “wage attachments” and refers to court orders directing employers to withhold certain amounts of money from employee paychecks to satisfy certain debts;
  • Administrative garnishments. These usually refer to federal government back taxes or student loans now in default – and they do not require a court order to be activated. Once debtors have student loans in default, they’ll normally be contacted by the U. S. Department of Education and told which collection agencies will be collecting their debts. (Note: Students loans can almost never be discharged by a bankruptcy filing);
  • Disposable earnings. This refers to the amount of money you have left in your paycheck after all mandatory deductions have been made for federal taxes, disability insurance, union dues, unemployment insurance, nondiscretionary retirement deductions, workers compensation and health insurance.

Types of debts often leading to wage garnishment

Texans are very fortunate compared to citizens of other states since Texas only honors a very limited number of garnishable debts.

  1. Unpaid child support and alimony (in arrears)
  2. Current court-ordered child support and alimony
  3. Government debts owed to the IRS (back taxes) — and all related fines and penalties
  4. Unpaid student loans (in arrears)

Note:  In light of Article IV of the U. S. Constitution, Section I (requiring each state to honor the “public acts . . .  and judicial proceedings of every other state,” certain other limited creditor debts referenced in judgments obtained outside of Texas may also be garnishable.

Be sure to speak with your Houston business law attorney whenever you receive any notice of an order to garnish your wages.

Fixed garnishment limitations that benefit Texas debtors

  • Total amount that can be garnished (based on all court orders). This is equal to 50% of your disposable earnings;
  • Percentage allowed for tax debt. This varies, based on your current deduction rate, the number of your dependents and other factors;
  • Student loans. The Department of Education can normally only garnish up to 15% of your disposable income from each paycheck;
  • Spousal support. The most your wages can be attached for this obligation is either $5,000 or 20% of your average monthly gross income – whichever is less.

Priority of wage garnishment orders

Although unusual factors might be able to change the list below, employers must normally prioritize their payment of garnishment orders in the following manner.

  • Unpaid child-support
  • Spousal support
  • Back taxes
  • Student loans

Texas employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees with wage garnishments

This has long been a concern of many employees since handling wage garnishments can take up a considerable amount of an employer’s time. Texas doesn’t allow those with wage attachments to be treated unfairly when it comes to hiring, promoting, demoting, reprimanding and firing (among other actions).

How creditors can still reach your money – apart from using wage garnishment

Even if your wages cannot be reached, regular creditors can still gain access to your money by obtaining court orders to freeze one or more of your financial accounts – and place liens on certain types of real property you own.

Please contact our law firm with any questions you may have about the proper handling of court orders to garnish wages — or any other types of administrate tasks regarding employees.

Does the Issuance of a 1099-C Discharge Debtors from Liability?

Does the issuance of a 1099-C discharge debtors from liability? The answer is no, the issuance of a 1099–C does not discharge debtors from liability from the subject debt. The filing of a Form 1099–C is a creditor’s required means of satisfying a reporting obligation to the IRS; it is not a means of accomplishing an actual discharge of debt, nor is it required only where an actual discharge has already occurred.

The fact situation is simple and straightforward. A creditor who has loaned money to a debtor makes an internal decision to “write off” of the debt on its books. At that point in time, the creditor is required by IRS regulations to report the write-off.

While only a handful of courts across the United States have addressed this issue, most have arisen in the context of a bankruptcy. Almost every court that has addressed the issue and the few reported decisions in Texas have concluded that the issuance of a 1099–C does not discharge debtors from liability of the subject debt.

The most thorough analysis of the issue and most cited opinion is In re Zilka, 407 B.R. 684 (Bankr. W.D. Pa. 2009), a bankruptcy decision from Pennsylvania. The Court in In re Zilka found four separate independent legal basis upon which to hold that the issuance of a 1099–C does not discharge debtors from liability. The four legal bases are as follow:

1. The IRS requires the issuance of a 1099-C. 26 U.S.C. § 6050P(a) provides, in pertinent part, that “[a]ny applicable entity which discharges . . . the indebtedness of any person during any calendar year shall make a return . . . setting forth . . . the name, address, and TIN of each person whose indebtedness was discharged . . .  [as well as] the date of the discharge and the amount of the indebtedness discharged.” The information return just referred to is a Form 1099–C.

However, “a discharge of indebtedness” is “deemed to have occurred . . . if and only if there has [been] an identifiable event described in paragraph (b)(2) of this section, whether or not an actual discharge of indebtedness has occurred on or before the date on which the identifiable event has occurred.” 26 C.F.R. § 1.6050P–1(b)(2) sets forth eight identifiable events that can trigger the filing and issuance of a Form 1099–C, among which is “(G) [a] discharge of indebtedness pursuant to a decision by the creditor, or the application of a defined policy of the creditor, to discontinue collection activity and discharge debt.”

2. The IRS does not view a Form 1099–C as an admission by the creditor that it has discharged the debt and can no longer pursue collection. In an IRS Information Letter issued in October 2005 it addressed concerns regarding the impact of a creditor’s compliance with the Form 1099–C reporting obligation and the continuing liability of a debtor on the subject debt. The IRS assured a concerned creditor that filing a Form 1099–C satisfies the reporting requirements of the statute and implementing regulations, neither of which “prohibit collection activity after a creditor reports by filing a Form 1099–C.”

3. That a Form 1099–C does not constitute an admission by the creditor that it has discharged the debt and can no longer pursue collection thereon is consistent with the fact a creditor can issue a corrected Form 1099-C if a recovery of some or all of the monies owed by the debtor subsequently occurs. In another IRS Information Letter issued in October 2005, the IRS responded to a creditor that it “does not view a Form 1099–C as an admission by the creditor that it has discharged the debt and can no longer pursue collection.”

4. The issuance of a Form 1099–C does not constitute one of the means of discharging debt pursuant to the Uniform Commercial Code, § 3.604 governs Negotiable Instruments. Section 3.604 of the Tex. Bus. & Comm. Code, Discharge by Cancellation or Renunciation provides that:

• A person entitled to enforce an instrument, with or without consideration, may discharge the obligation of a party to pay the instrument:

(1) by an intentional voluntary act, such as surrender of the instrument to the party, destruction, mutilation, or cancellation of the instrument, cancellation or striking out of the party’s signature, or the addition of words to the instrument indicating discharge; or

(2) by agreeing not to sue or otherwise renouncing rights against the party by a signed record.

The most recent Texas court to address the issue was Capital One, N.A. v. Massey, No. 4:10 CV–01707, 2011 WL 3299934 (S.D. Texas Aug. 1, 2011) wherein the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas “adopt[ed] the view that a 1099–C does not discharge debtors from liability” because the form is “issued to comply with IRS reporting requirements” and the IRS does not view it “as a legal admission that a debtor is absolved from liability for a debt.”

Lasting, pursuing collection of a debt that has been written off and reported on a 1099-C does not violate Tex. Fin. Code § 392.304(a)(8) which prohibits the collection a debt that was “discharged and/or extinguished against them.”