Even if you have made every attempt to stay out of debt, you may deal with a debt collector at least once in your life. Managing debt collectors can be a harrowing experience, especially if they hound you at home on weekends and holidays. It's important to know your rights—and theirs—if you've gotten behind on a debt.
As time passes, you might expect an unpaid debt to go away eventually. Unfortunately, debts don't just disappear because you ignore them. Your creditors may stop contacting you for payment after a while, but collection efforts can resume at any time. If a creditor or debt collector contacts you about an old debt, they're likely within their rights to do so.
Is There a Debt Collection Time Limit?
While there are laws that dictate how long debt collectors can take certain actions concerning your debts, there is no law that prevents debt collectors from continuing collection attempts. So, how long can debt be collected? As long as you still owe it.
If you haven’t paid a debt, the creditor can pursue you for the outstanding balance indefinitely unless you pay or settle the debt, have it discharged in bankruptcy, or the debt is canceled for some reason. Collection efforts can include calling or sending letters to get you to pay. The collector might list the debt on your credit report or even sue you for the balance.
That said, you can stop some collection efforts. You have the right to stop debt collectors from calling or sending letters, but you must make your request in writing. Send a written cease and desist letter requesting that the collector cease communications.
You'll have to send this cease and desist letter to each debt collector who handles the account. And, the letter only applies to third-party debt collectors, not the original creditor with whom you created the account.
Credit Reporting Limits
In their collection attempts, debt collectors are allowed to report your debt to the credit bureaus, which will add the debt information to your credit report. Anyone who checks your credit report will be able to see the collection account.
Fortunately, the law limits the amount of time a negative account such as a debt collection can be listed on your credit report. The credit bureau can only list a past due balance on your credit report for seven years, starting from the date of the delinquency. After that, the account should fall off your credit report, even if you haven't paid it.
You can remove collections that remain on your credit report after the credit reporting time limit by writing to the credit bureaus, citing the age of the account as the reason for your dispute.
Debt Lawsuit Time Limits
In some cases, creditors or debt collectors can sue you for past due debts. After a certain amount of time, however, debt is no longer legally enforceable. If you can prove the time window has closed, you can avoid a lawsuit judgment. This time limit for legal action on debt collection is called the statute of limitations.
Once this time limit has passed, you can use the expired statute of limitations to challenge the credit card issuer who takes you to court over the debt. This fact may be why debt collectors use threats and intimidation to collect money owed.
If you're served with a lawsuit summons (to which you must respond by law), you should consult with an attorney in your state to find out whether the statute of limitations will provide valid protection in your case.
Even after the statute of limitations has passed—which is anywhere from three to 15 years depending on the state—creditors and collectors can continue other collection efforts, including reporting the debt to a credit bureau as long as the credit reporting time limit hasn't passed.
The Bottom Line
Just because you're legally off the hook for a debt doesn't mean it's in your best interest to leave it unpaid. Collectors may not be able to take you to court, but that doesn't change how long they can try to collect the debt. Until you pay up or settle the debt in some way, they have the freedom to try to collect.
If you do start to make payments, you should also be aware that this resets the clock on the statute of limitations and opens you up to legal action again. Be sure you are able to pay the debt in full or settle an agreement with the collector before you start to pay.