Before a creditor can garnish wages from your bank account, your bank freezes the account for a preset period of time --- usually 21 days. During the freeze, you can't withdraw any money from your bank account. Although a creditor may threaten to freeze your bank accounts, it usually can't legally do so without a court order.
Your bank doesn't freeze your accounts merely because one of your creditors asked it to. A creditor must officially serve your bank with a writ of garnishment stating its legal right and intention to seize money from your accounts before your bank imposes an account freeze. Because a creditor needs to sue you and win a civil judgment against you before it can obtain a writ of garnishment, freezing your bank account without a court order is not an option for most creditors.
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, even if your creditor is the federal government, it must still file a lawsuit against you and request a court order granting it permission to seize your bank accounts --- with one notable exception. If you owe a tax debt to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), it can seize your bank accounts without ever filing a lawsuit against you. In addition, the IRS can seize income from your account that other creditors can't legally touch, such as Social Security payments, unemployment checks and retirement pensions.
The fact that most creditors can't freeze your bank accounts without a court order doesn't stop them from threatening to do so. Debt collectors without a judgment against you that threaten to freeze your bank account are breaking the law. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) dictates that debt collectors cannot threaten consumers with action they don't have the legal right to take. The FDCPA gives you the right to sue any debt collector that violates federal law by threatening to freeze your bank account and seize money without a court order.
Although state laws regarding the process vary, a creditor can't sue you without first attempting to notify you of the lawsuit. If you don't respond to the suit, the creditor receives a judgment by default. It can then use the court decision to request a writ of garnishment against your bank.
Unfortunately, creditors may intentionally serve debtors incorrectly --- or not at all --- to obtain a default judgment. This results in the consumer believing the creditor doesn't have a legal garnishment order when, in fact, it does.
If your creditor is the federal government, it can freeze your bank accounts regardless of what state you live in. Other creditors, however, must adhere to your state's laws regulating debt recovery methods. Not all states permit creditors to garnish bank accounts --- even if the creditor has a court judgment that would otherwise allow it to do so.