Dear Debt Adviser, I have a joint bank account with a boyfriend. Recently, our account was garnished for an old credit card debt of mine. I was laid off from work and haven't been working for a few months. Is it legal to garnish my boyfriend's wages? -- Cynthia
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Dear Cynthia, I am going to give you the short answer to your question. Because the bank account is jointly owned by you and your boyfriend, yes, the garnishment is legal. You should have received communication regarding the garnishment from the court that issued the order. You typically have 30 days to file for an exemption with the court before the money is actually removed from your account.
You can file an exemption stating that the money in the checking account is not yours, but your boyfriend's. Include proof that the money is his with a direct deposit receipt or a deposit slip and copy of his paycheck. If the money has already been removed from the joint account and the creditor did not receive the entire amount you owe, be prepared for another garnishment order. Additional orders can be placed by the creditor until the entire debt amount has been collected.
To avoid any additional garnishments of your boyfriend's money, he should stop depositing any money into any account with your name on it. Also, you can both close the joint account and have your boyfriend open up another account in his name only. As long as he is not financially responsible for the debt, the creditor cannot legally garnish his bank account or wages.
If you have any other joint accounts open, perhaps with your parents, siblings or old suitors, you should remove your name from those accounts as well to avoid further embarrassment. The debt collector on your account seems to be good at asset searches and will probably find any other bank accounts you have sooner or later.
At this point, if you are having trouble finding a job in your field, you should broaden your search and make securing any reasonable job your No. 1 priority. Once you are making money again, I hope you will quickly make a repayment agreement with the debt collector and pay back any money that your boyfriend was out due to the garnishment of your joint account.
Determine how much you can realistically afford to pay each month and let the creditor know that is all you can pay. The creditor may be unwilling to accept monthly payments, but you can only make your best effort. Don't agree to a payment amount that you can't afford and will be unable to meet.
Moving forward, don't ignore the debt collection process and let it get to the point where a creditor chooses to sue you in court. If you are embarrassed or frightened by the calls and letters, get professional help. Debts rarely disappear or are forgotten. For professional help, I can suggest two alternatives. A nonprofit credit counseling agency can offer you support and help in getting the lender to accept a payment you can afford. The initial credit counseling session is free and you can find an agency at NFCC.org or by calling (800)388-2227, or at AICCA.org, of by calling (866)703-8787. I also recommend a good local attorney who can advise you on your legal options and may also help negotiate a payback plan. This can be more expensive, but low cost or free help can be found at LSC.gov, or at (202)295-1500.