Fine Print

How do I tell when card debt legally expires?


The statute of limitations in your state and your card agreement are the starting points, but individual cases can be complex

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How to tell when debt expires

How can you tell whether a credit card debt has legally expired?

You must know two things to tell if a debt is so old you can no longer be taken to court over it: the law in your state, and the language in your credit card agreement.

1. The law in your state
The statute of limitations set limits on how long you can be successfully sued over credit card debt. But they’re tough for a layperson to read. They rarely use the words “credit card.” The laws are intended to set limits on all types of contracts, and credit card agreements are just one type of contract. So the laws divide debt into categories, with different expiration periods, and give them names such as “open account,” “written contract,” or “oral contract.”

It’s further complicated by case law, in which judges have sometimes reassign the category of debt for credit cards, altering the number of years the debt can legally be enforced.

We have deciphered it for you on the credit card debt statutes of limitations table. Check for your state’s the applicable period, based on the statute and prevailing case law.

2. The language in your card agreement
The language is in your credit card agreement, which should have been provided to you when you applied. If you don’t have it, you can call the 800 number on the back of your credit card and request a copy; federal law requires issuers to provide it on request. You can also online. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau maintains a public database of credit card agreements from all major issuers.

Language in your card agreement may dictate which state’s laws should be used. Usually the court in your state will use its own laws, but not necessarily. If a case goes to court, the question of jurisdiction — which state’s laws really apply — can be a critical argument in deciding whether a debt can be enforced. Those collecting the debt will argue the case belongs in the state court with the longer statute, consumers will argue the opposite.

If sued, get legal help
Even if you understand both the language and the law, they fall short of predicting what will happen if you do wind up in court, where decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. Consumers who take a do-it-yourself approach to statute of limitations cases tend to do poorly in court. The National Association of Consumer Advocates can direct you to consumer lawyers in most areas.

Once a debt is too old for court action, collectors can still call you seeking payment, but they cannot threaten lawsuits without running afoul of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. You also have the right to stop the calls by sending the collector a “cease-communication letter.” If a collector sues or threatens to sue for an expired debt, you have grounds for an action under the FDCPA.

See related:Know your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Expiration dates fuzzy on old card debt

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