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If you’ve ever received a phone call from a debt collector asking about a credit card debt you barely remember, you might be wondering how long debt collectors can pursue an old debt.

The answer is complicated. Each state has a statute of limitations on debt, and after the statute of limitations has expired, a debt collector can no longer sue you in court for repayment. However, there’s nothing in the law to stop debt collectors from continuing to try to collect on old debts even after the statute of limitations has expired.

If you have an old credit card debt that you haven’t paid off — or if you’re currently getting calls from a debt collector — here’s what you need to know.

What is the statute of limitations on debt collections?

Figuring out the statute of limitations on credit card debt can be tricky. The statute of limitations on debt varies by state and type of debt, ranging from three years to as long as 15 years. We’ve got a list of each state’s statute of limitations on debt to help get you started — but be aware that credit card issuers sometimes argue in court that the law in their home state (not yours) is what should apply.

Don’t be afraid to call a consumer protection lawyer or bankruptcy attorney if you need assistance, says Jonathan Ginsburg, an Atlanta bankruptcy attorney. “Lawyers like me, we’ll talk to anyone,” he says. “A lot of times you learn enough in a 10-minute conversation to empower you to handle the situation yourself.”

How long can a debt collector legally pursue old debt?

Legally, a debt collector can pursue old debt indefinitely. “Collectors can try to collect on old debt forever,” says Donald E. Petersen, a Florida consumer protection attorney who defends credit card cases. “I’ve had consumers contact me who are getting calls about debt that’s 14, 15 or 16 years old. The record so far is 21 years.”

Once the statute of limitations on your credit card debt has expired, the debt is considered “time-barred.” This means that a debt collector can no longer sue you over your unpaid debt. That said, some debt collectors still try to sue consumers even after the statute of limitations has expired. These cases are becoming more common, attorneys say, because lenders are increasingly selling off debts they’ve removed from their books for pennies on the dollar to third-party collection agencies who try to collect even though the statute of limitations has run out.

If you are being sued over a debt that is outside of the statute of limitations, you’ll need to appear in court and prove that the debt is too old to collect. Don’t skip your court date because you believe you can’t legally be forced to pay an old debt. If you don’t appear in court and defend your case, a judge may rule in favor of the debt collector.

What happens if you are being pursued by a debt collector after the statute of limitations has expired?

If a debt collector is calling you about an old debt, especially if you believe the statute of limitations on the debt has expired, do not acknowledge that the debt is yours and do not offer to make a payment.

There are three big reasons why you shouldn’t immediately claim responsibility for whatever debt a collector says you owe:

  • Old debts have often been passed from one collection agency to another, and it’s very easy for debt collectors to make a mistake. The money they say you owe might not be your debt. It might belong to someone with a similar name or someone who once had your telephone number.
  • In some cases, claiming the debt can reset the statute of limitations. If you’ve got an expired debt, the last thing you want to do is make it fresh again. 
  • The person calling you might be a scam artist. Debt collection scams exist, so make sure you don’t end up paying a fake debt collector money that you don’t actually owe.

The Federal Trade Commission suggests telling the debt collector that you aren’t going to discuss any debts until you receive your written validation notice. Debt collectors are required to provide you with a written notice within five days after first contacting you about a debt. This notice will include the name of the original creditor and the amount owed. The validation notice will also include your rights under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, including the right to send a “debt verification” letter that either disputes the debt or requires the debt collector to prove the debt is yours and that the statute of limitations has not yet expired.

You also have the right to send a “cease communication” letter to the collection agency. After you’ve sent this letter, the agency must stop calling you about your debt. At this point, the debt collector is only allowed to contact you for two reasons: to confirm it has received the letter and will stop contacting you, or to inform you about a specific action it is taking against you (such as filing a lawsuit).

Should you pay your debts after the statute of limitations has expired?

If you have an old credit card debt that has fallen outside of the statute of limitations, should you pay it? Some people argue that once a debt is no longer within the statute of limitations, it doesn’t need to be paid off. Others feel a moral obligation to pay off all of their outstanding debts, even if they can no longer be sued for failure to pay.

Having unpaid credit card debt on your credit report can hurt your credit score, but once the debt gets old enough, it’ll fall off your credit report and will no longer be an issue. Unpaid and delinquent debt disappears from your credit report after seven years — and if it doesn’t vanish on its own, you can ask the credit bureaus to remove your old debt from your credit history.

What if your credit card debt hasn’t expired yet?

If you have old credit card debt that is still within the statute of limitations, it’s important to try to pay it off. Consider transferring your old debt to a balance transfer credit card, so you can use the card’s interest-free grace period to make payments on that balance. You can also look into credit card debt relief programs, or use our debt management resources to learn more about debt consolidation loans, debt paydown calculators and more.

You should also be aware of your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. According to the FTC, debt collectors are not allowed to call you after 9 p.m. or before 8 a.m., and they are not allowed to call your workplace if you have told them verbally or in writing that your employer does not allow such calls. Even if you have debt that is within the statute of limitations, you don’t have to deal with debt collector harassment.

The bottom line

Even though there is a statute of limitations on credit card debt, that won’t stop some debt collectors from going after consumers with unpaid debts. If you receive a call from a debt collector on a debt that you believe is outside the statute of limitations, do not take responsibility for the debt. Wait until you receive your debt validation notice, then send a verification letter asking the debt collector to prove that the debt is yours and that the statute of limitations on your debt has not expired.