By Gerri Detweiler and Mary Reed. Updated December 4, 2020
Theoretically, your unpaid debts can last forever. But fortunately, state laws place limits, known as the "statues of limitations," that can effectively help you put old debts behind you. If a creditor or collector tries to sue you to collect a debt that is too old, you can raise the statute of limitations as a defense against the lawsuit. If you do so properly, the lawsuit should be dismissed.
The statute of limitations usually starts when you miss a payment or default on a debt and will be based on state law. (Another name for these old debts is "time-barred debt.")
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There are many charts online that list state statutes of limitations, including the one we link to below. But please be careful! These time periods are not always crystal clear.
It is rare, for example, for a state law to specify the statute of limitations for "credit card debt." Instead, credit cards may fall under the definition of "account stated," "written contracts," or "open accounts." It varies by state.
If you moved after you took out a debt, then the law of the state in which you lived when you opened the account may apply. (Or it may not; it depends.)
And some credit card agreements include a "choice of law" provision that states that the law of a specific state (such as Delaware) may apply.
So while your state's statute of limitations may serve as a guideline, it's always best to talk with a consumer law attorney if you aren't sure whether a debt is time barred, and it is absolutely essential if you are being sued for a debt.
State legislatures also occasionally change the statute of limitations for a type of debt. So please don’t rely just on one of these charts if you want to know what the debt collection statute of limitations is for a past due debt that you owe. Instead, contact your state attorney general’s office or talk with a consumer law attorney for the most up-to-date information.
Here's an inexpensive way to get an answer to your question from a lawyer:
Making a payment on a debt will start the clock all over again. Even if you simply agree to make a payment on the debt, or in some states if you simply acknowledge that you owe the debt, you may reset the time period covered by the statute of limitations. If that should happen, the debt collector could sue you.
For that reason, if a debt collector contacts you about an old debt, you may want to avoid discussing the debt until you have time to research the statute of limitations.
If you feel confident the debt collection statute of limitations on your debt has run out, you can:
It is not uncommon for collectors to take consumers to court to collect old debts. While the consumer could raise the statute of limitations as a defense against the lawsuit (which would stop the creditor or collector from getting a judgment), many consumers fail to respond to a debt collection lawsuit. When they don't appear in court, the judge usually awards the plaintiff (the creditor or collector bringing the lawsuit) a default judgment. A judgment gives the collector additional methods to collect the debt, including seizing bank accounts, placing a lien on property and/or wage garnishment, depending on state law.
The time period for collecting judgments is often much longer than the original statutes of limitations for debts, and judgments can usually be renewed.
That means you need to take a debt collection lawsuit seriously and get advice from a consumer law or bankruptcy attorney.
State statutes of limitations do not address how long a debt can be reported on your credit report. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) covers that. If a debt collector tells you that a debt will stay in your credit reports forever if you don’t pay it, this is simply not true.
The FCRA says that most collection accounts can only be reported for seven and a half years. You'll find more information about collection accounts on credit reports here.
Warning: Debts that never seem to die are a growing problem. These “zombie debts” are very old debts that "debt buyers" purchase cheaply from creditors (often for pennies on the dollar) and then try to pressure consumers into paying. However, a debt collector who does so may be breaking the law since it’s illegal for a debt collector to misrepresent the status of a debt.
And in some states, state law prevents creditors or collectors from trying to collect a debt that is outside the statute of limitations. Therefore, if a collector contacts you about a debt that is several years old, do not acknowledge that you owe it or agree to pay it until you find out whether it is too old.