Can my wages be garnished for missed rental payments?

Question

I am behind on my rent and attempting to get caught up. My landlord won't evict me, but he's threatening to garnish my wages from work. Is this legally possible?

Answer

The most common response from landlords when tenants are behind on the rent is to send them a "pay or quit" notice, giving them a few days (three to five is common) to pay the rent or move out. Sometimes, especially when the tenant has been repeatedly late, the notice doesn't give the tenant time to pay (he must move out within the specified time, period). If the tenant doesn't pay or move, the landlord can then file an eviction lawsuit.

Obtaining Unpaid Rent Through an Eviction Lawsuit

In the lawsuit, the landlord typically asks for possession of the rental (an order from the judge, telling the tenant to move), plus a judgment for unpaid rent. If there's a security deposit, the landlord can use this to cover the rent, but doesn't have to. Instead, the landlord can treat the judgment for back rent just like any other judgment in any civil suit: If the defendant-tenant doesn't pay it, the plaintiff-landlord can go after assets, such as bank accounts and wages.

Garnishing wages thus requires a court judgment, and it also requires a court order to the employer, directing the employer to withhold an amount of money from each paycheck, and send it to local law enforcement, who will see that it's paid to the plaintiff. Individuals can't garnish wages on their own. They must go through the courts, obtain a judgment, and obtain a garnishment order after that.

Obtaining Back Rent Through a Regular Lawsuit

As you can see, since most landlords use eviction to obtain back rent, most of the time any garnishment orders will follow eviction lawsuits. But there's another way to go after back rent, although it's rarely used. Without trying to evict you, your landlord could simply sue you in small claims court for unpaid rent, and if he won and you didn't pay, try to use the judgment as the basis for an order garnishing wages.

Few landlords will use this method, for obvious reasons. It makes no sense to allow a tenant who is behind in the rent to stay on the property while the landlord goes after back rent. If the tenant won't or can't pay, it's time to find another tenant.

Resolving Back Rent

If your landlord sincerely wants to work with you to find a way for you to stay and pay the overdue rent, there's a better way than thinking (erroneously) that he can garnish your wages on his own. Sit down and try to negotiate a payment plan. If you can't come to a resolution, maybe it's time for you to find another rental.

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