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Dealing with old debts

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Dear Dr. Don,
Due to lengthy illness and five major operations, I have been unable to pay certain credit card balances incurred in 1999 and 2000, and there has been no activity of any kind on these credit card accounts in perhaps six years.

The applicable statute of limitations in my state is either three or six years. Can a collection agency that has acquired my credit card account continue to pursue me even beyond the expired statute of limitations?

— Allan Absolve

Dear Allan,
The statute of limitations on a credit card agreement does vary by state. In most states the statute of limitations expires after three to six years.

A Bankrate feature, “State statutes of limitations for old debts,” lists the statutes of limitations by state. From that feature:

Once a debt passes beyond the statute of limitation in your state, a debt collector no longer has the right to sue you for payment. You may still have a moral obligation to pay back an old forgotten debt, but you can’t be sued over it.

Any debt collector who threatens to sue you over a debt that is beyond the statute of limitation in your state is in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act will also spell out how you can get the collection agency to stop contacting you. If the collection agency can’t sue you for the money, and it can’t contact you about the debt, the agency is pretty much out of the picture.

It’s important that you don’t verify the debt with the collection agency or make any type of payment on the account. You want to avoid any situation that could restart the clock on the statute of limitations. When in doubt about how to proceed, you should talk to an attorney.

Most negative payment history information stays on your credit report for seven years from the date of the initial missed payment. So this payment history information should be dropping off your credit report. Get a free copy of your credit report to confirm that it is. The Bankrate feature, “How to get your free credit report,” explains how to get these free credit reports.

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