How Long Can a Debt Collector Try to Collect on a Debt?[yoast-breadcrumb]
How Long Can a Debt Collector Try to Collect on a Debt?
If you have old debts that you haven’t paid, you may be wondering how long a debt collector can legally keep pursuing you for payment. It’s a fair question, and one that doesn’t have a simple answer. The amount of time a debt collector can try to collect varies quite a bit based on things like what state you live in, the type of debt, and when you defaulted. Let’s break it down.
What is the statute of limitations on debt collection?
The statute of limitations refers to the period of time creditors and debt collectors have to sue you for payment of a debt. Basically, it sets a time limit on how long they can take legal action against you. Once the statute of limitations expires, creditors and collectors can’t sue to collect on the debt anymore. But that doesn’t mean they have to stop trying to collect – it just takes away their ability to haul you into court.
Statutes of limitations vary a lot by state. In some states it may be as short as 3 years, while in others it can be as long as 15 years. The type of debt also plays a role. For example, student loans, mortgages, and tax debt often have longer statutes of limitations than credit card or medical debt.
The clock starts ticking when you first miss a payment on the debt. Let’s say you miss a credit card payment on March 1, 2020 in a state with a 6-year statute of limitations. The creditor or collector would have until March 1, 2026 to sue you for the debt. After that point, the debt is considered “time-barred” and generally can’t be pursued in court.
Can collectors still contact me about an old, time-barred debt?
Yes, even once the statute of limitations has expired, collectors can still attempt to collect on the debt through calls, letters, and other methods. They just can’t sue. So don’t assume that a debt collector contacting you years later about an old debt means you’re still on the hook legally. They may just be hoping you don’t know your rights and will pay up.
That said, it’s usually wise to pay off a legitimate debt if you’re able. Having an unpaid debt hanging over your head can hurt your credit and make it harder to get loans even if it is time-barred. But don’t let an aggressive collector pressure you into paying a debt that isn’t yours or that you already paid.
When does a debt disappear from your credit report?
Even if the statute of limitations has long passed, that unpaid debt isn’t going anywhere anytime soon in terms of your credit report. According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, most negative information can stay on your report for up to 7 years. For Chapter 13 bankruptcies, it’s up to 10 years.
The 7 years is counted from the date of your first missed payment, not the date the statute of limitations expires. So let’s go back to our example above where you missed a credit card payment on March 1, 2020. The statute of limitations might expire on March 1, 2026, but the debt could potentially stick around on your credit report until March 1, 2027 before it has to be removed.
Having an old unpaid debt on your report can really drag down your credit score. Paying it off – even if it’s time-barred – can help improve your credit utilization ratio and raise your score.
What if I make a payment on a time-barred debt?
This is where things get tricky. In some states, making a payment of any kind on a time-barred debt – even a tiny one – can revive the statute of limitations. Essentially the clock starts ticking again, giving collectors more time to sue. It’s called re-aging or resetting a debt.
Let’s go back to our example debt from 2020. The statute of limitations expires in 2026 making it time-barred. But then in 2028 you send the collector $20 hoping they’ll stop contacting you. You may have inadvertently given them a new 6 years to potentially sue you for the remaining amount.
To avoid this, don’t make payments on old debts unless you consult a lawyer or are absolutely certain the statute of limitations has not expired. Get any payment promises in writing first too.
When can federal student loans be collected?
Most debts have a statute of limitations, but federal student loans aren’t one of them. There is no time limit on when the government can take action to collect on a defaulted federal student loan, according to the Department of Education. They can garnish wages, tax refunds, and Social Security benefits down the road if need be.
Some private student loans do have statutes of limitations, but they vary widely. So it’s critical to check the terms of your specific loan and state laws. The lender should provide information on time limits and collection actions in your loan agreement.
What should I do if a collector contacts me about an old debt?
If a collector calls insisting you pay up immediately on a debt you know is years old, don’t let yourself get pressured or intimidated. Take down the name of the collector and ask them to provide written verification of the debt like proof of the original bill and payment history. This is your right under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Review the information carefully when you receive it and make sure the debt is actually yours and the amount is correct. Report any suspicious activity to your state attorney general’s office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
You can also send the collector a cease and desist letter demanding they stop contacting you. There are sample cease and desist letters online. If they keep contacting you after receiving the letter, they are violating federal law.
And of course, if you aren’t sure of your rights, talk to a lawyer or nonprofit credit counselor like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
The bottom line
Debt collectors may pursue you for years trying to get payment on a debt. But they are limited in how long they can sue you based on the statute of limitations. This time limit varies by state and debt type but provides important protections for consumers.
You have rights when dealing with collectors. You can dispute debts, demand proof, and tell them to stop contacting you. Don’t panic if an old collection call comes out of the blue – know your rights and options.