When you take on a credit obligation, or liability, you normally sign an agreement or promissory note requiring pay back of the debt. What you’ve just done is incurred what’s referred to as “contract debt.” If you default on a contract debt, such as a credit card, the creditor can and likely will vigorously pursue you for payment.
In many cases the original creditor will eventually sell your debt to a third party debt buyer. The debt buyer now becomes your creditor and you no longer owe the money to the original creditor. At this point the new creditor can report the account to your credit reports and enlist the assistance of a collection agency to persuade you to make good on your promise to pay the debt.
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Collection agencies normally collect debts using a variety of tactics. The agency will definitely report the debt to your credit reports. The agency will call you and write to you demanding that you make a payment. And, in the worst-case scenario for the debtor, the collection agency can sue you to collect the debt.
If you’ve been contacted by a collection agency about an old unpaid debt, it’s important that you do your due diligence and verify that the debt is valid and whether or not the collector still has the right to collect – especially if the debt has passed the statute of limitations.
The statute of limitations (SOL) to collect a debt is the length of time a creditor or collector has to take legal action and file a lawsuit against you in order to collect. If the statute of limitations has expired, the creditor or collector has no legal recourse and no longer has the ability to sue you for payment. The debt essentially becomes what’s called “time-barred,” which means the court no longer has the right to force you to pay up.
The SOL on time-barred debt varies depending on individual state laws, the type of debt and the type of contract initially agreed upon for the debt. For example, if you default on a contractual debt in the state of California, the statute of limitations is four years — meaning you can’t be sued for collection after four years has passed.
Statute of limitations by state
It’s important note that the state you resided in when you incurred the debt could take precedence over your current residence if you’ve moved to a different state. In most cases, the statute of limitations in the state where the contract was initially executed will rule unless the contract specifically states otherwise.
For example, if you signed a written contract with a creditor in California and later moved to Kentucky, the statute of limitations would be based on California law unless otherwise stated. In this example, California law only allows you to be sued for four years, where Kentucky’s is quite bit longer at 15 years. Here’s a breakdown by state for the statute of limitations on written contract debts:
Statute of Limitations on Written Contract Debts
|State||Number of Years|
|DC, DE, MD, MS NC, SC||3|
|CA, PA, TX||4|
|FL, ID, NE, OK, RI, VA||5|
|AL, AK, AZ, AR, CO, CT, GA, HI, KS, ME, MA, MI, MN, NV, NJ, NM, NY, ND, OR, SD, TN, UT, VT, WA, WI>||6|
|IL, IN, IA, LA, MO, WV, WY||10|
SOL: Credit reporting vs. debt collection
Don’t assume that the just because the statute of limitations to sue for a collection has passed that the account won’t be reported in your credit reports. The statute of limitations for collecting an unpaid debt and how long a creditor can legally report that debt in your credit report are very different. The statute of limitations for reporting a collection is 7 years, regardless of the state you live in. As evidenced in the preceding list the statute of limitations for collecting a debt can vary widely — from as little as 3 years to as long as 15 years for states like Kentucky and Ohio.
Unpaid collections: To pay or not to pay
One of the most common questions I get about collections is whether or not it makes sense to pay the debt, especially in regards to time-barred debts that have passed the statute of limitations.
When it comes to unpaid debts, I’d argue that you should pay the debt, especially if the debt is legitimately yours and you owe it. Keep in mind that collections will remain in your credit reports for 7 years, regardless of whether or not the statute of limitations has expired and the creditor or collector is legally able to sue you.
It’s also important to keep in mind that some lenders may require that you pay or settle old unpaid collections before they’ll agree to do business with you. This is especially common in the mortgage industry and something to keep in mind if you’re planning to apply for a mortgage to purchase a home.
Do collectors really sue if I don’t pay?
The collection industry is a big business and the odds of being sued for an unpaid debt is pretty high, so the answer is “yes.”
Obviously, the more you owe, the higher the risk of being sued. If you have a collection and are able to pay or settle the debt for less, it’s in your best interest to do so. It’s no secret that collection agencies are aggressive, and if the number of FDCPA and FCRA lawsuits are any indication, collectors are suing now more than ever to get their money.
Updated October 16, 2015 and originally published March 27, 2013.