How to tell if a debt is too old to collect


Credit Smart
Credit Smart columnist Susan C. Keating
Susan C. Keating is the president and chief executive officer of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Prior to joining the NFCC, Keating spent 29 years in financial services. She was the highest ranking female CEO of a U.S. bank holding company, serving as president and chief executive of Allfirst Financial Inc., the largest U.S. holding of AIB Group. She currently serves on Bank of America's National Consumer Advisory Council and is a board member of the Council on Accreditation. Keating also participates in the Financial Regulation Reform Collaborative, a nonpartisan group committed to finding solutions for reforming financial services regulation.

Ask a question.

'Credit Smart' archive


Dear Credit Smart,
Do you have any law protecting an individual from paying an outstanding balance on a credit card that was 10 years ago?  – Leo


Dear Leo,
Yes, I do – that law would be your state’s statute of limitations. These laws regulate the period of time that creditors have to sue for collection of certain unpaid debts. State statute of limitations laws vary, and in most states are between three and 10 years. It’s worth noting that the statute of limitation laws don’t generally specifically name credit cards; instead broader terms such as open or revolving credit are used. Credit card debt falls within those terms. 

The first thing you will need to determine is when the clock started running on your credit card debt. Again, in general terms, this usually begins around six months from the time the account goes delinquent. Again in general terms, a credit card is considered 30 days delinquent when it has been unpaid for two consecutive months.

What you want to avoid is doing anything that might restart that clock. Making a payment or even acknowledging the debt are two things that might do that. It is crucial to know that any payment will reaffirm the debt and restart the clock, even if that payment was not sufficient to bring the account current. This is important because even though you say the credit card balance is 10 years old that may not mean that the last payment was made 10 years ago. Having a card that you used 10 years ago is not the same thing when it comes to determining the statute of limitationsfor collecting. Also you should know that even acknowledging the debt to a collector might be enough to re-start the clock.

It is also important to remember that, even if you have not done either of those things and the balance is “time-barred” or not collectible, it does not go away. You still owe the debt. The reason I say this is that I don’t want you to ignore any court summons or notices regarding this debt. If the debt is in fact time-barred in your state for collecting, you have a valid argument in your favor for not paying. But you must show up in court, preferably with a consumer attorney, and present that argument. If you don’t, you might find yourself with a judgment against you for this debt, which will be much harder to ignore. 

Because the state laws are so varied, I suggest you take the time to read this story, “State statutes of limitations on credit card debt.” It will tell you much of what I have just told you, and includes a handy map of all 50 states showing each one’s rules.

Remember to always use your credit smarts!

See related: What happens when you're sued for credit card debt

Meet's reader Q&A experts

Does a personal finance problem have you worried? Monday through Saturday,'s Q&A experts answer questions from readers. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.

Published: April 30, 2016

Join the discussion
We encourage an active and insightful conversation among our users. Please help us keep our community civil and respectful. For your safety, do not disclose confidential or personal information such as bank account numbers or social security numbers. Anything you post may be disclosed, published, transmitted or reused.

If you are commenting using a Facebook account, your profile information may be displayed with your comment depending on your privacy settings. By leaving the 'Post to Facebook' box selected, your comment will be published to your Facebook profile in addition to the space below.

The editorial content on is not sponsored by any bank or credit card issuer. The journalists in the editorial department are separate from the company's business operations. The comments posted below are not provided, reviewed or approved by any company mentioned in our editorial content. Additionally, any companies mentioned in the content do not assume responsibility to ensure that all posts and/or questions are answered.

Follow Us

Updated: 10-22-2016

Weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, advice, articles and tips delivered to your inbox. It's FREE.