Debt Re-aging Dangers: Use Caution When Contacted About Old Past-Due Bills

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Typically, state law determines how long the statute of limitations lasts. Usually, the clock starts ticking when you fail to make a payment; when it stops depends on two things: the type of debt and the law that applies either in the state where you live or the state specified in your credit contract. For example, the statute of limitations for credit card debt in a few states may be as long as 10 years, but most states impose a period of three to six years. To determine the statute of limitations on different kinds of debts under each state's law, check with a legal aid lawyer, another attorney, or your State Attorney General's Office.

What should I do if a debt collector calls about a time-barred debt?

Collectors are allowed to contact you about time-barred debts. They might tell you that the debt is time-barred and that they can't sue you if you don't pay.

If a collector doesn't tell you that a particular debt is time-barred — but you think that it might be — ask the collector if the debt is beyond the statute of limitations. If the collector answers your question, the law requires that his answer be truthful. Some collectors may decline to answer, however. Another question to ask a collector if you think that a debt might be time-barred is what their records show as the date of your last payment. This is important, because it helps determine when the statute of limitations clock starts ticking. If a collector doesn't give you this information, send him a letter within 30 days of receiving a written notice of the debt. Explain that you are 'disputing' the debt and that you want to 'verify' it. The more information you give the collector about why you are disputing the debt, the better. Collectors must stop trying to collect until they give you verification. Keep a copy of your letter and the verification you receive.

Must I pay a debt that's considered time-barred?

The decision to pay a time-barred debt is up to you. You have options, but each one has consequences. For example, whether you pay the debt and how much you pay will affect your credit rating. Consider talking to a lawyer before you choose an option.

Pay nothing on the debt. Although the collector may not sue you to collect the debt, you still owe it. The collector can continue to contact you to try to collect, unless you send a letter to the collector demanding that communication stop. Not paying a debt may make it harder, or more expensive, to get credit, insurance, or other services because not paying may lower your credit rating.

Make a partial payment on the debt. In some states, if you pay any amount on a time-barred debt or even promise to pay, the debt is 'revived.' This means the clock resets and a new statute of limitations period begins. It also often means the collector can sue you to collect the full amount of the debt, which may include additional interest and fees.

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