Gwinnett to resume garnishments under new Georgia law

Georgia's new garnishment law, which offers more protections to people who owe money, goes into effect Thursday — eight months after a federal judge declared the previous law unconstitutional.

During those eight months, some garnishments were prohibited in Gwinnett County, where the suit was filed. Other counties also stopped accepting garnishment filings, at least temporarily, while they waited for the law to be changed.

The new law fixes a number of issues. The state's previous garnishment law didn't require creditors to tell debtors that some money — like Social Security benefits, welfare payments and workers' compensation — is off-limits to garnishments.

It clarifies what money in accounts is exempt and explains how quickly it can be recovered if it is taken improperly. It describes what a debtor should do if exempt money has been taken and explains the redress debtors would have. It specifies that a hearing should be held no more than 10 days after a claim is filed. And the law requires debtors to be notified about what money can't be taken and what appeals are available.

It also requires faster hearings when the court receives a claim of improper garnishment and a quick return of improperly taken funds.

The law was billed as an improvement for both businesses and consumers after U.S. District Senior Judge Marvin H. Shoob declared the old version unconstitutional in September. Still, some people think the new garnishment law doesn't go far enough.

David Addleton, a Macon attorney whose clients are mostly elderly and disabled, said there are still problems with the new law — namely, that people who put relatives or others on their accounts to help them pay their bills can have their own money improperly taken if the relative is garnished. The law does not require joint account holders to be notified.

He also questioned the requirement that people dispute garnishments where they are filed. For some people, getting to a far-away court to challenge a garnishment represents a financial hardship.

While it’s helpful that decisions must be made more quickly, he said, the current version of the law only patches some issues.

“It didn’t fix the real problem,” Addleton said.

The new law is more "user friendly," State Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, said before it was passed.

Richard Howe, managing partner of the debt collection law firm Howe and Associates, said the new law is "not so bad." The process is shortened now, he said, and the hardship for clients who were owed money but could not file to collect it will soon pass.

Despite the months spent rejecting some garnishment filings that they were not allowed to process, Richard Alexander, Gwinnett's clerk of courts, said the county is "up to date and ready to go."

"I would think it would be a gradual kick start," he said of new garnishments.

While statewide totals are unavailable, the number of garnishments filed in Gwinnett in 2015 was down 20 percent from the 2014 totals. That county has historically had about a third of all garnishments in Georgia.

Some of that may be related to an improving economy, Alexander said.

But Howe said he expects the numbers to pick up. Howe has held off on filing more than 100 garnishments in Gwinnett while he waited for an update to the law.

“I think it’ll be like a locomotive starting off,” he said. “I do see it picking up.”