Administrative Wage Garnishment Explained

By Melissa Brock · April 24, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Administrative Wage Garnishment Explained

If you default on your federal student loans, the government can typically force you to pay without a court order through administrative wage garnishment. With this process, your student loan servicer is able to collect 15% of your paycheck to automatically go towards loan repayment.

Wage garnishment can happen if you’ve missed payments on federal student loans for at least nine months (and haven’t entered an agreement with your lender to pay them back), and may continue until your loan is paid in full or the default status is resolved. Your wages can also be garnished if you default on private student loans, but the process works differently.

Learn what you can do to avoid wage garnishment on your student loans, plus how to get help with student loan garnishment once it has started.

What Is Administrative Wage Garnishment?

Administrative wage garnishment (AWG) is a debt collection method at the federal level. A federal agency can require a non-federal employer to withhold money from an employee’s paycheck to pay for a debt.

Typically, an employer may withhold up to 15% of your wages to repay a defaulted student loan. However, if you have multiple loans in default with different companies or have an existing child support order, garnishment can increase to 25%.

For federal student loans, you must have missed 270 (or nine months of) payments before your loan goes into default and the government can garnish your wages. The time-frame for default and garnishment can vary for private loans, and will depend on the policy of the lender.

With federal student loans, wage garnishment can take place without your servicer taking you to court. With private student loans, on the other hand, most states require lenders to obtain a court order to garnish your wages if you default on a loan.

Generally, wage garnishment can continue until your loan balances plus interest and fees are paid back, or your loan is removed from default.

An important note about federal student loans: The U.S. Department of Education is providing a temporary “on-ramp” to repayment between October 1, 2023 and September 30, 2024 to protect federal borrowers from the worst consequences of not making their student loan payments. During this transition period, servicers aren’t reporting missed, late, or partial payments as delinquent. In addition, loans will not go into default.

For borrowers who defaulted on their loans prior to March 13, 2020, the Education Department has created a Fresh Start program , which temporarily offers special benefits for borrowers to help them get out of default (more on this program below).

💡 Quick Tip: Get flexible terms and competitive rates when you refinance your student loan with SoFi.

How Does Administrative Wage Garnishment Affect Student Loans?

If your federal student loan goes into default, the Education Department (the lender) is required to send you a notice of wage garnishment by mail to the last known address 30 days before wage garnishment starts. This notice must inform you of the nature and amount of the debt and the agency’s intention to initiate garnishment.

You’ll be given the option to establish a voluntary repayment agreement as well as to request a court hearing.

If you don’t do either, wage garnishment will start. Your employer is required to comply with a wage garnishment request from the government. You’ll continue having money garnished from your paycheck until your loan is paid in full or has been removed from default.

If you request a hearing within the 30-day window, the government isn’t allowed to take money from your paycheck until the hearing is over and a decision is made.

With private student loans, wage garnishment follows a different process. For starters, private lenders may consider your loan in default after you’ve missed payments for three (rather than nine) months, though the time frame varies by lender. Once you default, a private lender may assign your loan to their collections department or sell your loan to a third party debt collection agency. The lender or collector must then sue you, take you to court, and receive a court order before they can garnish your wages.

Recommended: Understanding Student Loan Requirements

How to Protect Yourself From Student Loan Wage Garnishment

Making your student loans payments on time and in full is the simplest way to protect yourself from student loan wage garnishment.

If you’re having trouble keeping up with your payments, the best time to take action is when you begin missing student loan payments and before you actually default on the loan. At this point, you’ll want to reach out to your loan servicer to discuss options that can help keep your loan in good standing. Here are some to steps that can help:

•   Look into deferment and forbearance. The federal government has several deferment and forbearance options available, and some private lenders also offer forbearance programs. Keep in mind, though, that interest will likely still accrue on your loans during the deferment or forbearance period, which can make your loan more expensive in the end.

•   Switch repayment plans to get a lower monthly payment. The Education Department offers a number of different repayment plans, including long-term plans that can last up to 30 years. You may be able to lower your monthly payment if you opt for a longer repayment term. Extending your repayment term generally means paying more in interest overall, though.

•   Request an income-driven repayment plan. Income-driven repayment plans let you pay a percentage of your discretionary income toward federal loans for 20 to 25 years, at which point the remaining loan balances are forgiven. For some people, payments on an income-driven repayment plan can be as low as $0 per month.

•   Refinance your student loans for a cheaper rate. If you can qualify for a lower interest rate, refinancing your student loans with a private lender can lead to lower monthly payments. If you have multiple loans, it can also simplify repayment by consolidating them into one loan. Just keep in mind that refinancing federal loans with a private lender means giving up federal protections like deferment, forbearance, and access to income-driven repayment plans.

💡 Quick Tip: Refinancing could be a great choice for working graduates who have higher-interest graduate PLUS loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and/or private loans.

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Stopping AWG Orders

If your loans are already in default, you’ve received notice of wage garnishment, or you’re currently having your wages garnished, here are four steps you can take to remedy the situation.

1. Negotiate a Loan Settlement

You may be able to negotiate a loan settlement with a collections agency. Consider offering a lump sum or series of installment payments, and be sure to mention any specific financial hardships or medical issues you’re experiencing. A private lender or debt collector may be willing to settle the loan for less than the amount owed, such as principal and 50% interest or 90% principal and interest, or waive the collection fee (which may be 10% to 15% of the loan balance).

It is generally difficult to negotiate a loan settlement deal with federal student loans. Because federal loan servicers have multiple ways to recoup their money, including AWG, they have less incentive to negotiate with borrowers. You can only qualify in extenuating circumstances, and you’ll likely still have to pay the majority of your debt.

2. Consolidate Defaulted Student Loans

If you have a federal loan already in default, you might consider loan consolidation. This allows you to pay off defaulted federal loans with a new loan (called a Direct Consolidation Loan) and new repayment terms. To consolidate a defaulted loan, you need to either agree to repay your new loan under an income-driven repayment plan or make three consecutive, voluntary, on-time, full monthly payments on the defaulted loan before consolidation.

Keep in mind that eligible borrowers will be able to use the Fresh Start program to get out of default without having to consolidate.

Also note that if you want to consolidate a defaulted loan that is being collected through wage garnishment, you can’t consolidate the loan unless the wage garnishment order has been lifted or the judgment has been vacated.

3. Enter Fresh Start or a Loan Rehabilitation Program

Normally, one of the main ways to get out of federal student loan default is by rehabilitating your loans. Right now, however, loan rehabilitation has been temporarily replaced by the Fresh Start program.

Fresh Start is a short-term, one-time program to provide relief for borrowers with defaulted federal student loans. Fresh Start automatically gives you some benefits, such as restoring access to federal student aid (including federal loans and grants). To use Fresh Start to get out of default and claim the full benefits of the program, you must contact your loan holder.

After September 2024, when Fresh Start ends, loan rehabilitation will be an option again. Loan rehabilitation is a program offered by the federal government that involves entering into a repayment agreement to get your loan out of default and back into good standing. If you make a certain number of consecutive payments on time under the rehabilitation agreement, you can get your loan out of default and avoid wage garnishment. Contact your loan holder for more information.

Private lenders typically don’t offer a formal loan rehabilitation option. However, if you’ve defaulted on your private loans, it’s worth reaching out to your lender and see what payment assistance programs they provide.

4. Dispute the Wage Garnishment

If you receive a wage garnishment notice from the federal government, you have the right to dispute the notice and request a hearing, in writing, within 30 days.

This could be a good option if you do not agree that you owe the student loan debt you’re being asked to pay, disagree with the amount, or believe you weren’t properly notified about the garnishment.

You may also ask for a hearing if you believe that wage garnishment could create an extreme financial hardship in your life, or if you have been employed for less than 12 months after losing a previous job.

If any of these scenarios ring true, be sure to make a request for a hearing in writing and that the letter is postmarked no later than 30 days from the date the wage garnishment notification was sent. You’ll also want to include proof to support your objections to the debt or the garnishment.

Student Loan Refinancing Tips

If you’re in danger of wage garnishment, refinancing your loans could be a way to get back on top of repayment. Refinancing involves getting a new student loan with a private lender and using it to pay off your existing federal or private student loans.

Refinancing can potentially allow you to lower your monthly payment by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.)

If you decide refinancing is right for you, it’s a good idea to assess your credit health, research lenders, and shop around for the best rates. If a lender offers a prequalification tool, consider taking advantage — these applications require only a soft credit inquiry on your credit report. Getting prequalified can help you see the rates and loan terms you might qualify for if you refinanced.

With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.


How are administrative wage garnishments used?

Administrative wage garnishment is a debt collection process that allows a federal agency to order a non-federal employer to withhold up to 15% of an employee’s disposable income to pay a past-due (non tax) debt owed to the agency. For federal student loans, you typically must miss nine months of payments before the government can begin wage garnishment.

What happens if you get your wages garnished?

Wage garnishment happens when a court (or federal agency) orders that your employer withhold a specific portion of your paycheck and send it directly to the creditor or lender until your debt is resolved. Common sources of wage garnishment include child support, consumer debts, and student loans. Your wages will be garnished until the debt is paid off or otherwise resolved.

How do you respond to a wage garnishment?

First, you’ll want to carefully read the judgment to verify that all of the information is accurate. If you believe the garnishment was made in error, you can file a dispute.

If the garnishment is justified, it’s a good idea to call the creditor or loan servicer to see if you can work out a payment plan that brings the loan back to good standing and allows you to pay it off in a way that works with your budget. Or, you can simply accept the wage garnishment and pay off the debt in the installment plan instructed by the judgment.

Photo credit: iStock/fizkes

SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.

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