Can I Be Arrested for Debt I Owe?

An increasing number of debtors are being arrested for debts they owe and cannot pay, according to reports by several national news outlets. While debtor’s prisons were abolished in America years ago, it’s still possible to land in prison over an unpaid debt. Here's what you need to know.

It's important to understand that you usually can't be arrested simply because you don't pay a debt. Collection threats to arrest you and throw you in jail are usually bogus and illegal. (See below for advice if a debt collector is telling you that you will be arrested if you can't pay what you owe.)

When debtors are arrested, it is usually because they have been sued over a debt and have ignored (often repeatedly) a summons (it may be called a citation in your area) - a legal order to appear in court - for a hearing related to the debt. When they do, the court often declares them in contempt of court and it is the contempt of court order that causes them to wind up behind bars.

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If you receive a notice to appear in court over a debt, do not ignore it, even if you don’t recognize the company suing you, or if you know you cannot pay the debt. At a minimum, show up in court to tell the judge your side of the story.

If you do not show up, not only you may be declared in contempt, but also the judge is likely to award whoever sued you with a default judgment against you, which means that you will have to pay the money you were sued for without ever having had the opportunity to explain why you can't pay for it (or why you don't owe it).

In addition, by not showing up you will have missed out on the opportunity to try to settle the debt you've been sued for outside of court or to negotiate a payment plan. When you resolve your debt that way, the company suing you will drop its lawsuit and you will not end up with a judgment against you.

It is also a good idea to talk with a consumer law attorney to find out if the collection agency's actions are legal. (Keep reading for information on how to get legal advice.) Other options include negotiating with the collection agency to settle the debt outside of court, or requesting a payment plan.

Again, you typically cannot be arrested for debt you simply can't pay, unless you ignore orders to appear in court.

Debt Collection Threats To Send Debtors to Jail Are Often Illegal

If a debt collector is threatening to have you arrested because you can't pay a debt, get help right away from a consumer law attorney. The debt collector is probably violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act by making a threat. Again, it is unlikely that you can be arrested for a debt simply because you can't afford to pay it.

But that's no reason for you to ignore such threats either.

Important: It's another matter if you have been sued and the creditor or collector obtained a judgment from the court that orders you to pay a debt. If you don't comply with the court order, it's possible that you could be arrested. We recommend you consult with a bankruptcy attorney right away. Judgment creditors often have additional means for collecting from you that may include taking money from your bank accounts, garnishing wages etc. It is important to get legal advice in that situation.

Here's how to get help:

If a debt collector is threatening you with arrest:

Contact a consumer law attorney with experience in debt collection cases. Learn how to obtain free legal advice about debt collection here.

Warning: An attorney cannot help you if you are dealing with an online payday lender or debt collection scam. If you are, your options will be limited since these firms often operate outside the reach of the law.

If you owe a debt but can't afford to pay it:

Consider scheduling a consultation with a bankruptcy attorney. The attorney can explain your options for dealing with your debt and help you figure out if filing for bankruptcy is a good option for you.

Warning! According to, a website for the collections industry, there are six states — Arkansas, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Washington State — that allow debt collectors to seek arrest warrants for debtors in default if all other collection methods have failed. If you live in one of these states and cannot pay your bills, consult an attorney right away.

Here's how to get debt collection legal help, for free or at a low-cost.

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