Although it has been over two years since Congress ordered garnishment of federal and military pay and pensions for alimony and child support, thousands of divorced women (and some men) are still unable to collect money due them or their children.
The problem is that the government must deal with 50 different state laws relating to garnishment. And many individuals (and always) seeking back alimony and child support still run into different, confused, or dumb policies which vary among the nearly 100 federal agencies.
The Defense Department, U.S. Postal Service and Civil Service Commission have the best track records. They have processed thousands of court-ordered garnishments and now are making regular deductions from civilian and military paychecks, as well as from the retired pay of civil servants and military personnel. Other agenceis have not done so well.
Last year the Civil Service Commission issued proposed guidelines it would like to supply to other federal agencies telling them to comply with the alimony-child support garnishment law, and equally important, how they can do it. The Office of Management and Budget is still reviewing the CSC request, which, when cleared, would have President Carter issue an executive order delegating the authority to police the program to the CSC.
The issue is simple. The enforcement of it is not.
Congress decided to legalize garnishment of all federal wages and pensions an agency or military department to make the paycheck deductions. Garnishment does not cover any other type of debt.
To qualify for it, several things must happen.
First, a court must order an individual employed by the government, military or retired from government or the military, to make the alimony and or child support payments.
Then, the parent or guardian certified to receive those payments must go back to court and prove that they have not been made, indicating garnishment is the only way to get the money.
At that point, the court issues a second order which is supposed to go to the federal agency or military department which issues the pay or pension check to the person required to make the payments. At the stage the goverment is supposed to begin making the deductions from the check, and send them either to the court, an attorney or the individual supposed to get them.
Some government agencies have dragged their fleet out of ignorance of the law (PL 93-647) or the original executive order (11881, Date Oct. 3, 1975) which implemented the garnishment program. Others have not complied because of the many confusing state laws on garnishment.
Several states - Texas and South Carolina among them - do not permit garnishment of wages. It is possible, federal officials say, to get another state court to order garnishment but that is complicated, time-consuming and costly to the parents or exspouses who often do not have the expertise to do it or the money to hire a competent lawyer to handle it. Many lawyers are also unfamiliar with the techniques or will not vigorously pursue the cases because the money involved is not significant.
Some state courts can and do issue the garnishment orders without a time limit. That is, the deductions continue to be made indefinitely if it is proved that the federal employe, military member, or retiree has not made the payments in the past. Others, like Virginia, have time limits on garnishment orders. In the case of Virginia, garnishment can only be made for a 90-day period. After that, the spouse must return to court and get another order which, again, will run for only 90 days.
Congress probably cannot do anything about the different laws governing garnishment of wages since that is a state's rights matter. But the federal government has no excuse for delaying issuance of rules that would make some form of collection possible. Such rules would eliminate some of the financial and legal roadblocks that now confront many people trying to collect alimony or child support for an uncooperative individual on the federal payroll or who draws a federal pension.