Before a hospital could explore garnishment as an option to collect a debt you owe, the hospital would have to get a judgment in court. However, once it has a judgment, it generally can collect what you owe by taking what you have. Most states, however, prohibit garnishment of retirement income or retirement accounts such as a 401(k), pension or IRA, unless it's being used to pay alimony or child support.
If you owe money to a hospital and the hospital wants to aggressively collect on the debt, the hospital can sue you in court and obtain a legal judgment against you. The judgment is an order by the court to pay a certain amount of money to the hospital. You have 30 days after the judgment is awarded in most states to either appeal the decision, pay what you owe or negotiate a payment arrangement.
Collecting a Judgment
If you don't satisfy a judgment within 30 days in most states, the hospital can legally collect the debt in a number of different ways. For example, the hospital could take money from your bank account, seize your property and sell it, or garnish your income. State laws determine what types of accounts or income can be garnished and how much they can be garnished. For example, wage garnishment might be limited to 25 percent of your total wages. Debtors use the sheriff’s office to satisfy most judgments against you.
If you live in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, North Carolina or Texas, the hospital can't garnish anything, because these states prohibit garnishment by creditors. The hospital can, however, use other methods to collect the judgment. For example, it can seize your car and sell it without your consent or knowledge, put a lien on your property or take money out of your bank account.
No IRA Garnishment
The government treats retirement income and retirement assets such as a pension, 401(k) or IRA account differently from other types of assets. In most states except Wyoming, an IRA can only be garnished if you owe alimony or child support. This means the hospital is not permitted to garnish your IRA for the debt you owe, even if the hospital has a legal judgment against you.
Steve McDonnell's experience running businesses and launching companies complements his technical expertise in information, technology and human resources. He earned a degree in computer science from Dartmouth College, served on the WorldatWork editorial board, blogged for the Spotfire Business Intelligence blog and has published books and book chapters for International Human Resource Information Management and Westlaw.