Know your credit card debt’s limitations

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Dear Bankruptcy Adviser,
Is there a statute of limitations on a credit card debt? If so, when does it become effective?
— Maureen

Dear Maureen,
There is a statute of limitations on credit card debt, Maureen. It varies from state to state. In California, it’s four years — and this part is very important — from the last date of payment, or the last date of use.

Let’s suppose you have some debt and the statute of limitations (in your state) has run out. Typically, creditors will continue to try to collect from you. Some might lie to you and tell you that the four-year period begins when they bought the debt. Some might even sue you — and without asserting yourself and your rights, you might lose.

To win this particular game you must get documentation. What you want, and what the original creditor is legally obligated to supply, is proof of the most recent payment or credit card usage. Be patient as you maneuver through the creditor’s customer support. Be persistent when they tell you “Sorry, we don’t have those records anymore,” or, “Sorry, our dog ate your records,” or whatever excuse they offer. Keep asking.

If the creditor refuses to send you the documentation, then go online to your local court Web site and file a document usually titled, “Small Claim Subpoena — For Personal Appearance and Production of Documents and Things at Trial or Hearing and Declaration.” You will need to have this document sent through certified mail to the creditor and the attorney representing the creditor. Then the court will have notification that the creditor is not cooperating and will likely dismiss the case.

Suppose, however, that you get the document and that the statute of limitations has run out. Be careful — you’re not done yet. If you are sued then you want to appear before a judge. If you are asked to consent to a pro tem attorney, say “No.” Only agree to have your case heard by a judge. Although most pro tems will find for you, many times the pro tem attorney will want to remain in good standing with the court and will want to protect creditor interests. Many times, a pro tem might not be adequately informed on a particular issue and will simply continue the case or even find for the creditor. Therefore, you want a judge officially appointed to your court to hear the case.