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All About the Statute of Limitations on Debt

Paying off debt can be an excruciating process, depending on how much money you owe. But your debts may not haunt you forever. Most consumer debts have a statute of limitations. That means that after a certain amount of time has gone by, collectors can’t sue you for failing to pay off outstanding debts. Here’s everything you need to know about the statute of limitations on debt.

See how long it’ll take to pay off your credit card debt.

Understanding the Statute of Limitations on Debt

You can be taken to court for not paying off certain debts. But there’s a limit on how long debt collectors can chase after the borrowers they want to sue.

The period in which someone can take legal action against you for owing money is known as the statute of limitations. In many cases, that time period either begins on the date you last made a payment or when your account becomes delinquent (which usually happens 30 days after a borrower fails to make a payment). But sometimes, the statute of limitations begins whenever you last used the account, acknowledged that you owed debt or agreed to make a payment (more on that later).

Statutes of limitations offer consumers with old debts some protection from debt collection agencies. After the statute of limitations on a debt expires, that unpaid debt is considered to be time-barred. At that point, borrowers no longer have a legal obligation to pay off their debts.

Different states have different statutes of limitations. And there are different rules attached to different types of debts. In Iowa for example, the statute of limitations on credit card debt is 10 years. In Alaska, Alabama and Washington D.C. it’s only three years.

Not all consumer debts have a statute of limitations, however. Federal student loans, for example, haven’t had a legal expiration date for over two decades.

What to Do With Time-Barred Debts 

All About the Statute of Limitations on Debt

While you may no longer be legally responsible for your time-barred debts, you’re not totally off the hook. Most negative credit information – like unpaid debts – can stay on your credit report for up to seven years. But tax liens can remain on your credit report for up to 15 years and bankruptcies can be reported for 10 years.

Not repaying the old debt you owe after the statute of limitations expires could hurt your credit score. And you could have a hard time trying to buy a house or take out a new loan.

Related Article: The Worst Ways to Deal With a Bill Collector

If you decide to pay off an old debt, it’s important to make sure you have documentation confirming that the debt is yours before making a single payment. You may have to pay off your debt in full in order to avoid restarting or extending the statute of limitations on your debt. So talking to a lawyer before making a single payment is a good idea.

When a Collector Asks About Your Time-Barred Debt

Even though you can’t be sued for your time-barred debts, a debt collector may try to come after you anyway. Bill collectors are required to follow certain rules under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). But they have the right to contact you even after the statute of limitations on a debt runs out. If a debt collector threatens to sue you for a time-barred debt, he or she could be violating the FDCPA.

Statutes of limitations can be tricky. So if you’re not sure whether your debt is past its legal expiration date, it’s a good idea to ask a debt collector who contacts you if your debt is time-barred. If he or she says no, it’s best to ask for the date of the last payment and request written proof that the debt they’re trying to collect is actually yours.

You’ll need to be careful when speaking to debt collectors, especially when dealing with a debt you believe is time-barred. If you say the wrong thing, the statute of limitations could be restarted or extended and you could end up having to pay a bill collector what you owe. The debt collector could also sue you and win.

The clock on your debt can restart if you admit to owing a debt, promise to start paying it or attempt to start repaying it by sending money to a debt collector. But the guidelines associated with extending and restarting the statute of limitations vary depending on where you live.

Related Article: Understanding Debt

Final Word

All About the Statute of Limitations on Debt

If you don’t know if the statute of limitations on your debt has expired, you can check with someone from a local legal aid society, an attorney or your state attorney general’s office. Or you can figure it out yourself by finding out when the statute of limitations begins and looking up your state’s laws regarding the statute of limitations on debts.

After you can confirm that the statute of limitations on your debt has in fact expired, you’ll have to decide what to do with it. You can pay off the debt and improve your credit score or ignore it and wait until it disappears from your credit report. You could also dispute the old debt or try to work out an agreement so that you end up paying less than what you owe your creditor.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Geber86, ©iStock.com/fstop123, ©iStock.com/ozgurdonmaz

Amanda Dixon Amanda Dixon is a personal finance writer and editor with an expertise in taxes and banking. She studied journalism and sociology at the University of Georgia. Her work has been featured in Business Insider, AOL, Bankrate, The Huffington Post, Fox Business News, Mashable and CBS News. Born and raised in metro Atlanta, Amanda currently lives in Brooklyn.
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