Collectors can try, but can't legally collect a minor's debts

Don't give in out of fear or ignorance to demands for money you don't owe

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for

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Question for the expert

Dear Opening Credits,
My fiance recently received a bill in the mail from a debt collector from 2004 for medical bills. At that time, he was only 16 years old. As an adult now, is he responsible for the medical bills from when he was a minor?  -- Samantha

Answer for the expert

Dear Samantha,
Debt collectors possess a special aptitude for reaching far back in time and locating those who owe them money. In fact, often a person has long forgotten about the obligation -- from what it was initially for, to the amount owed. It can be a nasty shock when the letters arrive or the calls begin.

Another interesting thing about collectors, however, is that some fail to conduct proper due diligence. As with your fiance's case, for example. While there very well may be an outstanding hospital bill that that needs clearing up, with a just a little file review they would have discovered his young age at the time treatment was performed. Your betrothed was two years away from when he could sign a formal agreement that would hold him liable for the charges. As I've said many times, unless formally emancipated, minors cannot enter into such legal contracts.

It's also possible that the collection agency is aware of the date and age problem, but it was easier to find your guy than the true responsible party (assuming there is one). It's called hedging their bets. You see, the odds are good that the person they pursue will pay up whether they really have to or not. There are three common reasons for this:

  1. Fear. A collector's correspondence can be very scary. Their voices are typically rough, and they may threaten lawsuits and ruining one's credit rating. Many people send the money just to stop the frightening calls.
  2. Wanting it over. Often, if the sum is small enough, a consumer will write a check and just pay the darn thing. They know they may not really have to, but believe that fighting it is too time consuming.
  3. Not knowing the law. This is the biggie. Debt collection law isn't taught in school, and most adults simply don't know their rights. For instance, if a collector says he can drain a retirement account, a lot of people trust that that is a real possibility (pssst: it's not.)

The third point leads to what your fiance -- and anyone dealing with third-party collectors -- needs to do immediately: Get educated. Become familiar with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. This federal law limits the actions of collectors who purchase delinquent balances from credit card companies, doctors, retailers and the like.

Also know the statute of limitations for lawsuits on credit card debt in your state. You didn't mention where the two of you live, but as an example, here in California an individual can't be sued for such a bill after four years has passed. Assuming that time frame has lapsed, even if he did owe the money, the worst-case scenario is the debt would remain on his credit report for seven years from the charge-off date. For him, it would mean only one more year.

Once your fiance understands the reality of what can and can't happen, he should write a letter to the collector and point out the facts: He was only 16 when he was admitted to the hospital, and he is not legally responsible for the debt. He may also request they stop contacting him. If he has any supporting documentation from the hospital, he needs to include copies.

Mind that all this doesn't mean there isn't money owed. There is a good chance someone admitted him and signed paperwork with insurance and payment information. Perhaps it was a parent or an older sibling. Ask him -- he may remember. Should he point the collector in that person's direction, though? Well, that wouldn't be very nice, but the choice is his.

See related: Understand your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Credit card charges made by minors are invalid, Who's liable for a minor's medical debt?, State statutes of limitation for credit card debt

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Updated: 01-23-2018