Old, unpaid debts can resurface at any time
Even if you change your name, move out of state, they'll likely find you
To Her Credit
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 Steward 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
Dear To Her Credit,
I had some credit cards back in 1996. At that time, I was
married. My husband and I divorced in 1997. I got my maiden name back during
the divorce. I received credit card bills in my married name for several
years, but then it changed to my maiden name. I have not paid on these credit
cards bills since 1997.
How many years can the credit card company go back? The
credit card company has been bought out several times now. They offered me a
settlement, but I still have not paid them. I live in Kentucky.
I started receiving Social Security Disability in 2000, so
I'm on a very limited income now. I am living from month to month on my
I know that these credit card bills are still on my credit report,
but is there any way that I can get them removed? -- Linda
Fifteen-year-old credit card debts are time-barred from
collection in nearly all states. See for yourself in our story, "State's statutes of limitations for credit card debt."
However, in Kentucky, it's not clear which time periods apply to
credit card debt. It may be five years or 15 years, depending on how the courts
interpret it. If the statute of limitations is five years, your debt is too old
for the credit card company to collect. If it's 15 years, it's either too old
or it's getting very close.
It won't make any difference whether you used your married
or maiden name. Credit reports are always for an individual and are based on the
person's Social Security number. Our credit histories follow us regardless of
what happens to our last names.
Are you sure these bills are on your credit report? A past
due credit card bill should generally stay on your credit history only seven
years. If you haven't seen your credit report lately, it may be in better shape
than you think. It's important to check your credit report regularly -- at
least once a year -- not only to discover things that should be there, but to
make sure you're not worrying needlessly about negative marks that are long
gone. You can pull your credit report free of charge once a year from each of
the three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) at
If these debts turn out to still be on your report, write to
the credit bureaus and request that they be removed. You can contact the credit bureaus in writing or online.
You say they offered you a settlement. Let's hope they did
not get you to reaffirm the debt when they talked to you. Too often, collectors
use sneaky tactics to get the statute of limitations to start over. It doesn't
take much; for instance, you could get a letter asking you if you intend to pay
the debt now or later. If you return the letter agreeing that you owe the debt,
you've just reaffirmed it. The same thing happens if they call you and try to
get you to say you owe the debt. (That's a great reason to never discuss debts
on the phone with a collector!) Another tactic is to call you, and
oh-so-helpfully suggest you send them a very small payment. Oops -- you just
reaffirmed the debt again. Your statute of limitations period is reset to zero.
If your statute of limitations has been restarted, you will
have to use another defense. The fact
that you are living on disability payments should convince collectors your case
is judgment proof . The sooner they figure that out, the sooner they'll move
on to more profitable accounts.
If the collectors keep calling, I recommend that you seek
low-cost legal help. Never ignore a creditor. A common misconception is that
statute of limitations (SOL) laws prevent creditors from taking you to court,
trying to garnish your wages or putting a lien on your property. That's not the
case. SOL laws don't stop creditors from trying collection actions. They only
give you a defense and prevent them from succeeding when you use the laws as
See related: 6 bad reasons debtors reaffirm debt
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.