Are Servers’ Tips Protected Under Florida’s Earnings Exemption Statute?

Florida debtors who are head of household can exempt from creditor garnishment unlimited earnings. Questions frequently arise concerning what types of compensation are included in the statute’s definition of “earnings.” For example, commissions earned by an independent contractor are not exempt under the Florida statute. Florida courts have held that wage garnishment protection applies to regular compensation dictated by the terms of an arms’s length employment agreement to perform services that are in the nature of a job.

A Florida bankruptcy court considered whether tips earned by a head of household bartender are in the nature of earnings protected from garnishment. The debtor claimed as exempt wages and tips in a bank account. In this case the debtor’s employer charged all customer’s a flat service charge upon all of the debtor’s sales, and the employer paid the service charges as part of the debtor’s paycheck. The bankruptcy court held that the tip payments were exempt after deposit in the debtor’s account. The court noted that the tips were paid as par of a regular bi-weekly paycheck and that there was no allegation that the tips could not be properly traced and identified as earnings of a head of household. In re Holmes, Case No. 09-16564, Southern District of Florida.

The court did not address the issue of cash tips paid directly from customers. As a practical matter, a creditor could never garnish a cash tip before it is paid and most servers do not deposit cash tips in their bank account.

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