Is there a statute of limitations on debt?
Yes, the clock ticks on credit-report scars and on the debts themselves. But that doesn’t necessarily get you off the hook.
By Liz Pulliam Weston
Not too long ago, the only people who had to worry about legal limitations on old debt collections were folks who didn’t pay their bills.
Today, however, increasingly aggressive collectors are going after people for debts they’ve already paid or that aren’t even theirs. Knowing something about so-called "statutes of limitations" on debts can help you deal with misdirected or belligerent collection attempts.
Here are just a few examples from my mailbag:
Suzy from New York City was fielding calls from a so-called "debt repurchaser," a company that buys old debts from other collection agencies. The repurchaser demanded payment for a credit card bill that Suzy paid through a credit counselor, but she’d long since lost all her records regarding the account.
Jerri’s credit card number was stolen and used to call a 900 number, a premium call that cost more than $200. Her credit card issuer removed the charge and reissued new cards. Apparently the 900-number service provider turned the debt over to a collection agency, because three years later she started getting calls demanding payment.
Brian in West Hollywood messed up his credit big-time in his early 20s, but his father stepped in, paid off his bills and closed all his accounts. Nearly 15 years later, Brian had rebuilt his credit and was looking forward to buying his first home when he got a disturbing call from a collection agency. "They claim I have an outstanding debt of $387.30 from the early 1990s," Brian wrote. The debt was supposedly from a credit card that Brian doesn’t remember ever having. "They have threatened that if I do not pay this, it will damage my credit report. . . . I feel like this is a scam, but I don’t know. . . . I am nervous about any negative marks on my credit report."
The Federal Trade Commission and state regulators around the country have taken action against collectors that have tried to resuscitate old, paid-off debts or that hounded people about debts that weren’t theirs. But you can’t always count on regulators intervening in your case, so knowing something about debt limitations can help you defend yourself against the worst practices.
How old is too old to collect?
There are two major types of limitations on debt that you need to know — and that many people confuse.
The first has to do with how long debt problems can show up on your credit reports. Federal law typically requires credit bureaus to drop negative information after seven years. The clock usually starts ticking 180 days after the account first goes delinquent (in other words, when you miss your first payment on the account). There are exceptions: Bankruptcies can remain on your credit reports for up to 10 years, and some debts, such as unpaid tax liens, can stay on your reports indefinitely.
Collectors can’t legally restart the seven-year clock by "re-aging" the debt (giving it a new delinquency date) or by selling it to another agency. (The FTC shut down one large collection agency, CAMCO, after charging the company repeatedly re-aged debts in its attempts to collect.)
The other curb on debt collection is the statute of limitations, which gives creditors a certain time period — in most states, three to six years — in which to sue you over a debt.
Statutes of limitations vary widely by state, and by the type of debt, according to attorney John Lamb, co-author of "Solve Your Money Troubles: Get Debt Collectors off Your Back & Regain Financial Freedom." States often have different rules for oral and written contracts, as well as for "closed-end" contracts such as installment loans and "open-ended" contracts, which typically (but not always) include credit card accounts.
California, for example, has fairly short statutes of limitations on most debts: two years for oral contracts and four years for written contracts, promissory notes and credit card debts. Kentucky, by contrast, says creditors can sue over written contracts for 15 years after the last payment was made, and for five years on most other debts, including credit cards.
Some other key points about statutes of limitations:
The devil’s in the details. Not only do states have different statutes of limitations for different debts, but two states may treat the same debt differently. A credit card debt might be considered an open-ended account in one state and a written contract in another. The only way to know for sure is to check your state laws or consult an attorney.
You can inadvertently restart the clock. Generally, the statute of limitations starts ticking from "date of last activity" on the accounts, said Los Angeles bankruptcy attorney Scott Bovitz. (If the account is still listed on your credit reports, the date of last activity should be noted there.) On a credit card debt, that could be the last payment you made or the last purchase you charged. But in some states, Lamb said, making a payment on an old debt, agreeing to an extended repayment plan or even acknowledging that the debt is yours can extend the statute of limitations or restart the clock altogether.
A creditor may still sue you after the SOL has run out. Suing or threatening to sue you after a statute of limitations has run out violates the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Lamb said, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. To prevent the creditor from winning a judgment against you, you’ll need to show up in court and point out that the statute of limitations has expired.
The creditor may try to pick a better venue. If you sign a credit contract and move to another state with different limits, the creditor may try to sue you in the state that has the longer statute. If that’s not the state in which you currently live, Lamb said, you should protest: "The general rule is that the state you live in" is the one whose statutes should apply.
Debts can still exist even if the creditor can’t sue. Some people erroneously believe that debts are erased after the statute of limitations has run out. Although the creditor’s ability to sue you has been curtailed, it can still try other methods to persuade you to pay, including calls and letters. The debt can also be sold to another collector that can renew efforts to get you to pay. A legitimate debt is truly erased only when it’s paid or erased in bankruptcy court.
First, make sure you’re covered
So how should you handle attempts to collect an out-of-statute debt? Sometimes the best recourse is to simply "hang up the phone and walk away," Lamb said.
"You want to be very careful," Lamb said, "not to say anything that could be used to restart the statute of limitations."
If you want to fight back, you should first make "absolutely sure" the statute of limitations has indeed expired, Lamb said. Otherwise, contacting the collector may goad it into more action.
In Jerri’s case, for example, the statute of limitations in her home state of Wisconsin had three more years to run. Since the bogus debt didn’t turn up on her credit reports and the collection agency didn’t threaten to sue, she opted to just ignore the calls, which eventually stopped.
You can start your research at one of a number of Web sites that post information on statutes of limitations, such as CreditInfoCenter.com, whose chart includes links to relevant state laws.
If you’re sure the debt is too old for a lawsuit, you could send the collector a letter via certified mail, return receipt requested. The letter should include the fact that the debt isn’t yours (if that’s true), that the statute of limitations has expired and that you want all collection efforts stopped.
You may be able to handle this yourself, or you may want a lawyer’s help. The National Association of Consumer Advocates can provide referrals to attorneys familiar with fair credit laws.
Columns by Liz Pulliam Weston, the Web’s most-read personal finance writer, appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. She also answers reader questions on the Your Money message board.
Published May 31, 2007