Bad credit doesn’t have to last forever. If you take steps to improve your financial life, mistakes will disappear from your credit report over time. Chapter 7 bankruptcies will stay on your credit report for 10 years, while unpaid or delinquent accounts will stay only seven.
However, negative debts don’t always disappear on schedule. Misunderstandings or errors can result in a debt overstaying its welcome on your credit report. If old debt is still haunting your credit report, you don’t have to live with it. Here are eight steps to get it off your credit report.
8 ways to remove old debt from your credit report
If you’ve noticed old debts on your credit report, it’s best to act as soon as possible. Here are a few steps you should take.
1. Verify the age
One of the biggest factors in fighting old debt is determining just how old it really is.
“If it’s not falling off, then the credit reporting companies have not received the right date,” says Maxine Sweet, recently retired vice president of public education for credit bureau Experian.
With a court action (like judgment or bankruptcy), determining the date is easy: You count it the day it was filed.
Delinquency is more difficult. “The regulatory language on it is very complicated,” Sweet says. However, the date that you first became delinquent and after which never caught up is the date that should count, she says.
Her example: You miss a payment in January. Then you make it up and also pay in February. Then you miss March and your bill eventually goes into default. Your delinquency date would be March.
Why this is important: The original date of the debt is what determines when it falls off your credit report.
Who this affects most: This affects anyone with debt, but especially those with delinquencies or missed payments.
2. Confirm age of sold-off debt
One point that confuses even the experts: No matter how many times a debt is sold (and resold), the date that counts for the seven-year credit report clock is the date of delinquency with the original creditor.
If a collection agency bought your 10-year-old retail card debt and has started putting it on your credit report with a different date, that’s a no-no.
Why this is important: Again, it’s the original date of when the debt was incurred that determines when it falls off your credit report. You want that to be as accurate as possible.
Who this affects most: Those with older debts are more likely to have their debts sold to a collection agency.
3. Get all three of your credit reports
Your three credit reports from consumer reporting agencies Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are not identical.
The old debt in question might be listed in some credit reports but not others. To find out, get a copy of all three of your reports. Federal law entitles you to request a free copy of each report once every 12 months. You can download them for free at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Once you find out which bureaus are listing the debt, contact them. Your credit report will include contact information and dispute instructions.
Why this is important: If you’re only looking at the copy of your credit report from one credit bureau, you may be missing inaccurate information that is on another report.
Who this affects most: Mistakes with credit reports can happen to anyone with old debt on any of your credit reports.
4. Send letters to the credit bureaus
If the debt really is too old to be reported, it’s time to write to the credit bureau(s) to request its removal. When you dispute an old debt, the bureau will ask the creditor reporting it to verify the debt. If it can’t, the debt has to come off your report.
Make sure to craft a case so strong that the creditor will have to acknowledge that it’s correct or present tangible evidence to the contrary. Include copies of anything that supports your claim, such as copies of court filings that show the correct date for a judgment or bankruptcy or a letter from your original creditor showing when the account became delinquent.
If a collection agency is reporting an account as a different (and newer) debt, include any paperwork showing that the two accounts are really the same debt.
Send this letter certified with a return receipt requested so that you can prove when it was sent and that it was received.
Why this is important: If you can prove that the debt is older than legally allowed to show on your credit report, the bureau can remove it.
Who this affects most: People with incredibly old debt have a better case for getting their debt removed.
5. Send a letter to the reporting creditor
You also want to send a similar letter to the creditor who’s currently reporting the debt.
To do this, either reframe your credit bureau letter with copies of your documentation to the creditor or simply send a copy of the same letter with copies of any documents included.
As with the credit bureau, send it certified with a return receipt requested. The creditor has 30 days to investigate your claims and respond.
Why this is important: Depending on who your creditor is, it may be faster to work directly with it to get your old debt removed.
Who this affects most: Those with older debts with more established companies will benefit from contacting the original creditors. You may find it easier to work with larger, more established creditors than with smaller collection agencies.
6. Get special attention
If your initial letters don’t do the trick, you may have to kick your approach up a notch, says Sonya Smith-Valentine, former managing attorney at Valentine Legal Group. Take a few minutes to research the company reporting the debt.
“Direct your next letter to the president’s attention at the company’s headquarters address,” she says, “because you get a different kind of response from the office of the president than you do from customer service.”
Again, send it certified and keep a copy in your files.
Why this is important: It can sometimes be challenging to find the right person or the right department when disputing old debt, so you may have to escalate your request.
Who this affects most: Those who have not been able to get removal of their old debts through other means may try more targeted methods.
7. Contact the regulators
If the collector is “in any way, shape or form a bank,” it has a federal regulator, Smith-Valentine says. “They actually take individual complaints and contact the companies about the complaints they receive.”
“I always say that it should not be your first recourse,” she says. Only use this one if “you have contacted the company and received no resolution or response,” she says, as regulators want to see that you’ve tried to solve it yourself first.
Again, opt for snail mail, she says. “You want to be able to send in copies of your correspondence and copies of your return receipts, and you can’t do that online.”
One shortcut you could try is printing out the agency’s complaint form, filling it out and sending it in clipped to your documents.
Why this is important: Financial regulators provide critical oversight and support for consumers trying to set the record straight about their credit report.
Who this affects most: This should be a last resort, but if you have not been able to get removal of old debts by contacting the credit bureaus or the company directly, financial regulators may be able to help.
8. Talk to an attorney
Consulting an attorney doesn’t always mean pursuing a lawsuit. Sometimes all you need is a letter on legal stationery to make a creditor review the records.
If, despite your best efforts, the creditor or collector is keeping old debt on your report, an attorney can also advise you as to whether a lawsuit is a good option.
If you do choose to talk to an attorney, choose one who specializes in consumer rights, Smith-Valentine says. “When you’re dealing with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, it is very convoluted and you need someone who’s done it, who understands it and who knows where the holes are.”
One source for help is the National Association of Consumer Advocates, an organization of lawyers who specialize in credit and debt law.
Why this is important: Even if you don’t file a lawsuit, having a letter sent by a lawyer can help get your case seen by the correct people.
Who this affects most: Anyone who has tried the other options but is still having trouble getting old debt off their credit report should contact an attorney for assistance.
How do you get something removed from your credit report after 7 years?
In theory, debts should be automatically removed from your credit report once they reach their legal expiration (seven or 10 years). If you see debts on your credit report that are older than that, you’ll want to contact both the creditor and the credit bureau by mail requesting a return receipt. In your letter, include all documentation about the debt, including any inaccuracies.
How long can a debt collector pursue an old debt?
Each state has a statute of limitations about how long a debt collector can pursue old debt. For most states, this ranges between four and six years. These statutes govern the amount of time that a debt collector can sue you, but there is no limit to how long a collector has to try and collect on a debt. If you are being contacted about a debt that you believe is not yours or is outside the statute of limitations, do not claim the debt; instead, ask the company to validate that the debt is yours.
Can a collection agency report an old debt as new?
Collection agencies cannot report old debt as new. If a debt is sold or put into collections, that is legally considered a continuation of the original date. It may show up multiple times on your credit report with different open dates, but they must all retain the same delinquency date. They should also all be discharged on the same date — seven years after the original open date.
The bottom line
While old debts should be discharged from your credit report after they’ve reached their legal expiration, this doesn’t always happen automatically. It’s important to be vigilant and aware of the information that is on your credit report. If it has any errors or misinformation, you’ll want to fix that as soon as possible. Removing even a single debt or delinquency on your credit report can raise your credit score by 50 points or more — so take action as soon as you notice an error.