12 MINUTE READ
Don’t let debt pull you under. Here’s what you need to know about what’s called “the statute of limitations” on debt and what to do if you’re behind on payments.
What Is a Statute of Limitations, and How Does It Work?
Before you picture a New York City skyline—no, a statute of limitations isn’t the same thing as the Statue of Liberty. A statute of limitations on debt is the maximum amount of time that a creditor can take legal action against you for defaulted (late) debt payments.
All consumer debts (like credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, etc.) have a statute of limitations. It usually begins after the first missed payment, but it can start as soon as you sign the contract. And depending on the kind of debt involved and what state you live in, the statute of limitations can range from three to 10 years. (Sometimes it’s even as long as 15 years—we see you, Ohio and Kentucky!)
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Debt that has passed the statute of limitations is called “time-barred debt.” Creditors can’t legally take you to court over time-barred debt, but they can continue to call and ask you to pay that money back because, yes, it’s still your debt.
Now, you might think you can just wait out the statute of limitations and not pay your debts if they’re time-barred. But missing debt payments on purpose (even though you have the money to pay) dives into some tricky moral territory. If you made the choice to borrow the money in the first place, you should take responsibility for it—no matter how far behind you are. It’s called doing the right thing. Plus, not paying on your debt typically stays on your credit record for seven years and may get in the way of getting a job, buying a house, or starting a business. And before you know it, time-barred turns into life-barred!
What Is the Statute of Limitations on Debt in Each State?
The statute of limitations on debt depends on the kind of debt and where you live. Your debt can fall into one of four categories: oral agreements, open-ended accounts, written contracts and promissory notes (we’ll explain each in a minute). Every state has different rules for each kind of debt, so check laws for your specific situation through your state attorney general’s office.1 And keep in mind that some contracts (like with certain credit card companies) have their own statute of limitations based on where the company itself is located. But as a general rule, here are the statute of limitations on debt in each state (as of June 2019):
These are any kind of spoken promise—like a handshake between you and Uncle Bob. They can be hard to prove and typically have a shorter statute of limitations because they rely on your memory.
Statute of Limitations for Oral Agreements:
|3||Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington|
|4||Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah|
|5||Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, West Virginia|
|6||Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin|
|10||Louisiana, Rhode Island|
This category of debt includes any revolving lines of credit (where there’s a cycle of borrowing and paying back), such as store accounts or credit cards.
Statute of Limitations for Open-Ended Accounts:
|3||Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, Washington|
|4||California, Delaware, Florida, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah|
|5||Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, West Virginia|
|6||Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin|
Written contracts, like medical expenses or home improvements, are printed agreements where you give something with the promise that you’ll get something else in return. It’s signed by both the lender and the borrower.
Statute of Limitations for Written Contracts:
|3||Alaska, Delaware, Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina|
|4||California, Pennsylvania, Texas|
|5||Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Virginia|
|6||Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin|
|10||Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Wyoming|
Promissory notes are written agreements that list your monthly payment, interest rate, and date the debt needs to be paid back. Student loans and mortgages are examples of promissory notes.
Statute of Limitations for Promissory Notes:
|3||Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina|
|4||California, Pennsylvania, Texas|
|5||Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont|
|6||Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia|
|10||Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Wyoming|
What Happens if You Get Sued After the Statute of Limitations Expires?
Legally, creditors and debt collectors can’t sue you for time-barred debt (again, that’s just a fancy term for debt that’s past the statute of limitations time period). But that doesn’t mean they won’t try. They might argue with you about how much money is due or when the statute of limitations actually started. They may even try to get you to pay debt that isn’t even yours!
If a debt collector threatens to sue you for old debt, ask them two questions:
1. Is the debt time-barred?
2. What was the date of the last payment?
They don’t technically have to answer, but if they do, they have to tell the truth. And then you can compare their answers with your own records.
If it’s already past the statute of limitations, you can tell them they can’t sue you. But if you are called to court (even if your debt is time-barred), you do actually have to go to court and ask the judge to dismiss your case. If you don’t show up, the judge could order you to pay the money just because you wouldn’t cooperate—not cool. That’s why it’s so important to keep written records of all your debt payment history so you have proof of what you really owe.
Re-aging Debt (aka Zombie Debt)
We’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again: Even if your debt is time-barred, you shouldn’t write it off completely. You still need to pay back what you owe. But if you make even one tiny payment on time-barred debt, it automatically re-ages the debt and resets the clock on the statute of limitations. This means you just reclaimed the debt as yours. And now collectors can legally come after you for it.
That’s what we call zombie debt, and it can be as scary as it sounds if not handled the right way. But if you’ve got zombie debt creeping up on you, fear no more! Keep reading to find out how you can get old debt off your back and avoid this apocalypse.
How to Pay Off Old Debt
The problem with debt is it keeps you from living in the present because you’re still paying for the past. And if your debt is in collections or even if it’s time-barred, you’re still responsible for it. It can feel overwhelming trying to get back on track if you’re months—or sometimes years—behind on payments. But the good news is you can fight your way out! Here’s how to get started paying off your old debt.
Take care of necessities first.
Collectors have one mission and one mission only—to get your money. And they will use any dirty trick in the book to do just that, like threats and insults. In other words, creditors are professional bullies. But even if they’re calling every minute, you still have to put food on the table. So before anything else, your priorities should be the Four Walls: food, shelter, utilities and transportation. Take care of those first and then worry about paying your debt. Remember, you are the one in control—take care of your family first. The creditors can wait.
Use the debt snowball method.
If you’ve got old debt, or even current debt, it can be hard to decide who to pay first and how much. But the debt snowball method gives you a focused game plan to tackle debt one payment at a time. First, list all your current debts smallest to largest, regardless of interest rate. Then pay minimum payments on everything but the smallest one—that’s the one you attack with a vengeance. Do all you can to knock it out of your life (get a second job, cut the cable, eat rice and beans).
When the smallest one is gone, take what you were paying on it and use that money toward the next smallest one. Once the snowball starts rolling, it’s hard to stop it! After you’ve paid off all your current debt, move on to taking care of any old debt you have—because you want that gone too! Using a tried and true method like the debt snowball gives you the small wins you need to defeat debt for good!
Try to settle your debt.
When it comes to paying back old debt, collectors know that some money in their pockets is better than nothing at all. So even if you can’t pay the full amount of what you owe, start with offering them what you have. If you’ve got $200, see if they’ll take $200. If they won’t take that, call back when you have more to offer. If you’ve got old debt, it’s likely the amount you owe has grown over time because of interest and late fees, so try to get collectors to settle for the original amount or less. You don’t have to get ugly or stoop to their level. Just be honest about how much you can actually give them and see if they’ll meet you halfway.
But whatever you do—get everything in writing! Collectors are known for going back on their word, so don’t believe them when they promise to “do you a favor.” Also, never give a collector your bank account numbers, or they will clean you out!
And remember the thing we said about zombie debt? Unless you have something in writing from a collector about settling for a specific amount, be careful about making a payment on debt that has passed the statute of limitations—or you may open yourself up to a legal battle. So print out whatever agreements you and collectors decide on, and keep those records for the rest of your life—just in case they try to come back later (it’s been known to happen).
We know dealing with debt collectors can be a hair-pulling hassle (to say the least), but don’t give up! Just make sure you know your rights, your debts and your best negotiation tactics when dealing with these snakes. And don’t be afraid to hang up the phone when you feel you’re being bullied. If a debt collector continues to harass, lie to or threaten you, you can send a letter asking them to stop contacting you and report them to the Federal Trade Commission.2
Get on a proven plan.
Take a minute to imagine what it would be like to not have to argue and plead with debt collectors. What if you never had to worry about staying on top of your payments because you didn’t have any payments? Say what? Yeah, you heard us right. A life without debt is totally possible, and it starts with changing how you think about money.
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