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Fighting garnishment of low wages for medical debt

By Sally Herigstad
Published: May 09, 2014

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Dear To Her Credit,
I just received a garnish of wages in the state of Washington. I make $800 a month, and I support one child in high school. My ex owes me $13,000 in back child support.

I had an emergency hospital visit, with no health insurance. I tried to ask for assistance, but I never received an answer. I owe $1,679, and I sent them a cashier's check for that amount, but the collection agency sent it back and said the amount of $2,546.68 would be garnished from my pay.

What else can I do to stop my wages from being garnished? -- Pamela


Dear Pamela,
Your wages cannot be garnished. According to Boston bankruptcy attorney Theodore Connolly, Washington law prevents garnishment for earnings after taxes that are less than $253.75 weekly. You make less than $200 per week, so they're out of luck if you defend yourself.

That doesn't mean you can ignore notices of garnishment. Connolly says you must pay attention to any legal notices you receive and fight any attempted garnishment or other creditor action. That means going to court and representing yourself, if necessary. "She has an absolute defense with her wage amount," he says, "but she has to tell the judge what she earns. Judges will work hard to help a person who has come into court to help herself."

It's important that you keep track of all the collection agency's attempts to contact you and the tactics they use. The fact that they turned down a payment makes Connolly believe they may not be the most reputable agency. Their tactics, if they cross the line, may actually help your case.

Collection agencies must comply with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). Among other things, by law they cannot attempt to embarrass you, call after 9:00 p.m. or before 8:00 a.m., or call or visit at work when they know it's inconvenient or that your employer doesn't allow such calls or visits. Connolly says, "She should keep track of how they try to collect. The more she can tell a judge about their tactics, the more sympathy she will get if she ever needs to go to court." If the collector violates the FDCPA, you can sue for damages and reimbursement of your lawyers' fees.

You also have a right to make them stop calling you.  You should send a cease and desist notice, after which they can only send you mail. Every time a collection company representative calls, ask for the mailing address and tell them not to contact you by phone again. Then send them a basic cease-and-desist letter by certified mail with receipt requested. You can use one of these sample cease-and-desist letters

Connolly also recommends that you be more persistent in calling the hospital to explain what has happened.  The hospital may reduce or eliminate the charges, based on your income level. Connolly says the hospital may take the debt away from the collection agency and work out a payment plan with you.

The important thing to remember in situations like these is to fight back. Connolly says, "She cannot be afraid, ashamed or try to ignore her debt." Work with the hospital, and go to court if necessary. Get legal help for that $13,000 in back child support, while you're in fighting mode. You and your son need and deserve all the help you can get.

See related: How wage garnishment works -- and how to avoid it, What types of income are protected from wage garnishment?