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 columnist 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 wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

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 disability checks.

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

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear 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 AnnualCreditReport.com.

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 your defense.

See related: 6 bad reasons debtors reaffirm debt

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Updated: 03-18-2019