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What is the statute of limitations on debt?

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If debt collectors keep contacting you about a debt that fell into collections years ago, you owe it to yourself to do some research. There’s a chance they can’t sue you to collect the debt.

Debt collectors have a limited time to file a lawsuit against you to recover debt. The time frame varies by state and the specific type of debt but generally ranges from three to six years.

After the statute of limitations has passed,   debt collectors no longer have the right to sue you to recoup the debt. But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook necessarily. Creditors can still try to collect the debt on their own as long as they don’t violate the law in their attempts to do so.

What is the statute of limitations on debt?

The statute of limitations on debt is the length of time that debt collectors have to sue you to collect old debts. In many places, the statute of limitations is between three to six years. In some places, it can be longer based on the type of debt. Once the statute of limitations expires, collectors can’t win a court order for repayment.

This means they won’t be able to garnish your wages or place a lien against your home. What they can do, however, is continue to contact you and ask you to repay. Depending on the state in which you live, they may still have the right to call you or send you letters.

State Written contract Oral contract Promissory note Open-ended accounts
Alabama 6 6 6 3
Alaska 3 3 3 3
Arizona 6 3 6 3
Arkansas 5 3 5 5
California 4 2 4 4
Colorado 3 3 3 3
Connecticut 6 3 6 3
Delaware 3 3 3 3
Washington D.C. 3 3 3 3
Florida 5 5 4 4
Georgia 6 4 4 4
Hawaii 6 6 6 6
Idaho 5 4 5 4
Illinois 10 5 10 5
Indiana 6 6 6 6
Iowa 10 5 10 5
Kansas 5 3 5 5
Kentucky 15 5 10 5
Louisiana 10 10 10 3
Maine 6 6 20 6
Maryland 3 3 3 3
Massachusetts 6 6 6 6
Michigan 6 6 6 6
Minnesota 6 6 6 6
Mississippi 3 3 3 3
Missouri 10 6 3 5
Montana 8 5 5 5
Nebraska 5 4 5 4
Nevada 6 4 3 4
New Hampshire 3 3 6 3
New Jersey 6 6 6 6
New Mexico 6 4 4 4
New York 6 6 6 6
North Carolina 3 3 3 3
North Dakota 6 6 6 6
Ohio 8 6 6 6
Oklahoma 5 3 6 5
Oregon 6 6 6 6
Pennsylvania 4 4 4 4
Rhode Island 10 10 10 10
South Carolina 3 3 3 3
South Dakota 6 6 6 6
Tennessee 6 6 6 6
Texas 4 4 4 4
Utah 6 4 4 4
Vermont 6 6 14 6
Virginia 5 3 6 3
Washington 6 3 6 6
West Virginia 10 5 6 5
Wisconsin 6 6 10 6
Wyoming 10 8 10 6

How to tell if a debt is time-barred

A time-barred debt is a debt that has passed the statute of limitations in your state. It’s important to understand that you still owe a time-barred debt, and your credit score may dip if you don’t repay it. The main advantage of a time-barred debt is that you can’t be sued or taken to court for it.

The type of debt you have and the statute of limitations in your state will determine how old debt has to be before it’s considered time-barred. Consult a consumer protection attorney or the consumer protection agency in your state to determine if a debt you owe is time-barred.

How does the statute of limitations on debt work?

Each state has its statute of limitations for each type of debt. In California, for example, the statute of limitations is two years for oral contracts and four years for written contracts. So, if you live in California and it’s been four years and one day since your last activity on a written contract, the debt collector won’t be able to sue you.

In most states, the statute of limitations ranges from three to six years. Some states, however, allow debt collectors up to 10 years to file a lawsuit against you. The statute of limitations time clock usually starts on your first missed payment date.

Categories of debt

There are four major categories of debt. There is often a different statute of limitations for each category. The categories of debt include:

  • Open-ended accounts: Accounts with varying revolving balances that you can borrow from over and over as long as you keep repaying the balance. A credit card and line of credit are examples of open-ended accounts.
  • Oral agreements: Debt made on verbal agreements to repay the money. There are no written contracts on these debts.
  • Promissory notes: Written agreements to repay a debt in specified payments at a specified interest rate by a specified date.
  • Written contracts: Any written agreement signed by you and a creditor and features the terms and conditions of a loan.

Can you get sued after the statute of limitations expires?

After the statute of limitations expires, debt collectors lose the legal right to sue or threaten to sue you for a time-barred debt. However, this doesn’t mean a debt collector won’t sue you.

If the debt collector believes the statute of limitations has not yet passed because their records show a more recent date, they may still sue. In addition, a debt collector may sue thinking you won’t be able to prove that the statute of limitations has passed or won’t attend the court proceeding to protect yourself.

If the debt collector sues you after the statute of limitations expires, consult an attorney. They can guide you through the process of asking the judge to dismiss your case and ensure your rights are protected.

Should you pay your debts after the statute of limitations expires?

After the statute of limitations expires, it’s in your best interest to repay the debt you owe. If you can’t afford to make full payments, try negotiating with the collector to see if you can pay them less than you owe. Taking care of your debt, even after the statute of limitations has passed, can improve your credit and increase your chances of securing affordable financing in the future.

What’s more, the longer you wait to pay, the worse it will be for your overall financial health. Creditors may continue adding interest, late fees and other charges that worsen your situation.

Finally, it’s worth noting that even if the statute of limitations appears to have expired, creditors may still try to pursue their case in court, arguing that the statute of limitations didn’t apply for some reason or disputing when the statute of limitations clock began.

The bottom line

The statute of limitations protects you from being sued by debt collectors after a certain time is up. However, this does not mean you no longer owe the debt. Even after the statute of limitations has passed, collectors may contact you and seek payment.

To stop them from contacting you, devise a plan to repay your debt. Once you tackle your debt, you’ll enjoy less stress and better financing options in the future.

Written by
Anna Baluch
Contributing writer
Anna Baluch is a former Bankrate contributing writer. She is a personal finance freelance writer from Cleveland who enjoys writing about debt, mortgages, student loans, personal loans and auto financing.
Edited by
Loans Editor, Former Insurance Editor