After an employee had fallen behind in his child-support payments, the Montgomery County Support Agency, in Ohio, ordered the man's employer to garnish his wages. One manager, ignorant of the court order, approved a payment of more than $8,000 to the employee from his profit-sharing trust, neglecting to inform the support agency and to delay the payment for 30 days, as state child-support law required. A court ordered the company to pay all the child support its employee owed in arrears -- $2,500.

In the past some states garnished wages for child support only after the parent had fallen behind in payments. But by 1994, under the 1988 Family Support Act, all states must permit garnishment from the beginning of support payments.

That shifts to the employer the responsibility for an enormous amount of bookkeeping, says Helene Brezinsky, a lawyer with the New York City firm Rosenman & Colin. The court tells the employer what it must garnish. The employer pays the state's collection unit, which pays the spouse. As an employer juggles claims from several states and several former spouses, the situation grows confusing. Employee relations also grow complicated. Employees may resent managers who appear to side with former spouses.

Brezinsky's advice to employers: don't be too harsh or too helpful. She has seen employers supply more information on employees than necessary, in an effort to facilitate the process. Other companies, by trying to help employees, make themselves contestants. The West Virginia Supreme Court, for example, recently held an employer liable for one employee's unpaid child-support payments and for punitive damages, because the employer had agreed to pay the worker in cash to help him avoid garnishment.

Your state's child-support-collection unit can answer questions. Also try the resources below. -- Michael P. Cronin

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Resources: Free Advice on Garnishment
In its September 1992 edition, the newsletter "You and the Law" focused on the Family Support Act and the garnishment of child support. The article included a procedural guide to record keeping, employee privacy, and more. "You and the Law," published monthly by the National Institute of Business Management, in Alexandria, Va., covers all business law and regulation, uses small-company examples, and avoids jargon. A year's subscription costs $125. You can order the September issue for free by calling 800-543-2055.

Also free, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' booklet "The Income Withholder's Role in Child Support Cases" presents a history of associated regulations, an analysis of state and federal regulations, and a detailed description of proper withholding. Call 202-401-9382 to request a copy.