How to tell if a debt is too old to collect


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

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Updated: 01-20-2018