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How long does old debt stay on credit reports?

By

To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also writes regularly for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets.
Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive
Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear To Her Credit,
If a debt is reported as a charge-off on one's credit report and then later passes the statute of limitations in the state of California, can it be removed from the credit report in its entirety?  -- Lindsey

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Lindsey,
The statute of limitations and the length of time items remain on your credit report are two completely separate issues. The length of your statute of limitations -- the number of years before a debt is "time barred" from collection -- is based on state law. That state may be where you live (or lived when you opened the account), or it may be the card issuer's state, such as Delaware (a state that changed its laws to attract banks).

Credit reporting, on the other hand, is done by the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) determines the maximum amount of time an item can stay on a credit report.

Statute of limitations
In California, the statute of limitations on credit card debt is four years. If the state of Delaware applies, the statute of limitations is only three years. The good news is that they can no longer collect from you if you show the courts that the debt is time barred.

Be careful, however, as many people mistakenly think that if a debt is past the statute of limitations, they can throw notices about them in the recycle bin and forget it. If you receive a court summons over an old debt, you must respond in order to prove to the courts that the debt is time barred. If you ignore a debt or a court summons, you may find a chunk missing out of your paycheck one day after the creditor sues you and wins when you don't show up!

Time limits on credit report
After the statute of limitations has passed and the creditor has written off the debt, your credit history slate is not wiped clean. Potential creditors, and anyone else who looks at your credit report, can see the debt and the fact that it was never paid. It takes seven years (five years for New York state residents) from on the original delinquency date on the account before the debt drops off your report.

Even one old, unpaid and uncollectible debt can drag down a score, making it difficult for a person to get more credit at a decent interest rate, rent an apartment or sometimes even get a job. Potential creditors are understandably leery of lending money to someone who didn't pay back creditors in the past.

What you can do now
Don't try to hire someone to get a legitimate mark taken off your report. They can't do it -- at least not permanently. At best, they may be able to wrongly challenge accurate reports and have them temporarily removed from your report during an investigation.

You can do something about the negative consequences of the mark, however. Write to the credit bureaus and attach a short 100-word statement to your credit report explaining what happened. For example, you may have lost your job or been in the hospital. If you keep a clean record for a few years after you had problems, creditors are more likely to look past prior problems, especially if you had a legitimate reason for them.

Consider paying the debt if you can. That's still the best way to get rid of a debt and a debt collector. Old debts can still cause problems and stress, even when they are past the date of being collectible. Nothing's stopping creditors from attempting to contact you, as long as they stay within the rules. If you pay off the debt, it will be marked as paid on your credit report.

If you don't pay off the debt, the best you can do is to keep your credit report clean from now on and wait for the seven years to pass. Keep a close eye on your credit from now on, and soon you can have a credit history to be proud of.

See related: Expiration dates fuzzy on old card debt, Don't restart the clock on expired debts

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts
Vexed by a personal finance problem? CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers every weekday. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.
Gary Foreman, New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman,
"New Frugal You"
Sally Herigstad, To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad,
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Cathleen McCarthy, Cashing In columnist Cathleen McCarthy,
"Cashing In"
Jane McNamara, Let's Talk Credit columnist Jane McNamara,
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Elaine Pofeldt, Your Business Credit columnist Elaine Pofeldt,
"Your Business Credit"
Erica Sandberg, Opening Credits columnist Erica Sandberg,
"Opening Credits"

Published: April 5, 2013


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