People who borrow money generally understand that they will eventually need to pay borrowed money back to the lender. This understanding, whether codified in a contract or not in any particular case, makes lending and borrowing money work as an economic mechanism. It’s interesting that regardless of what’s written in a contract, most debt can be legally ignored. Borrowers may feel bound by their pride to honor commitments, but every state in the country has laws that prevent lenders from chasing after deadbeat borrowers after a certain amount of time.
Time-barred debts are subject to a statute of limitations. After a certain amount of time passes with a borrower unable or unwilling to pay back a loan, the lender will no longer be able to sue the borrower for uncollected debt. The lender can still contact the borrower and try to convince him or her to pay back the loan, but the lender’s legal rights to the funds are limited.
This doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to wait for the statute of limitations to pass on all your debt in order to avoid your obligations. There are consequences if you don’t pay back debt. Most importantly, the three credit reporting bureaus will significantly decrease your credit score, and it could take a long time for that number to return to normal. This will affect your ability to qualify for more loans, mortgages, and credit cards in the future.
This is a dilemma many homeowners have considered recently; with the market value of houses sharply decreasing in the last few years, and the resulting financial reality of owing the bank more on the mortgage than the house is worth, some in this situation have considered walking away from the house and mortgage. In some cases, this could be a tactic that is more financially responsible than continuing to sink money every month into a depreciating asset. Families considering this option have to weigh the consequences, including not being able to qualify for a mortgage again for many years, against the emotion-based drive to honor financial commitments.
Although lenders are legally barred from suing borrowers after the statute of limitations for a particular debt has passed, they might still try. If you’re able to show a judge that the debt is time-barred and no longer legally collectible, you have nothing to worry about other than the consequences.
Credit cards and other open accounts like home equity lines of credit, written contracts, oral agreements, and promissory notes may have different statutes of limitations, and each differs by state, as well. Here’s a list by state of time-barred debts.
The clock starts ticking on the statute of limitations from the day you miss your first payment. The moment you send a payment to the lender, no matter how small, the clock resets. For example, if the statute of limitations on credit card debt in your state is seven years, and it’s been six years since you’ve made a payment, you may determine that it makes more financial sense to refuse to make a payment for one more year rather than negotiate with the lender. If you are in financial difficulty and don’t expect to ever be able to pay off the debt, paying even a small amount means you’ll need to wait another seven years after making the small payment before you’ll be legally protected from paying back the debt.
Not all debt is time-barred; student loans backed or issued by the government have no statute of limitations. Anything you borrow under any of the loan programs that qualify in this category can never be ignored. The lenders are often willing to negotiate the terms in order to help you make payments you can afford, but these students loans are, for the most part, legally stuck with borrowers until the lenders are satisfied.
A few questions for discussion:
- Do you think it’s right that borrowers can avoid agreements by patiently waiting for the statute of limitations to pass?
- Have you ever been sued for debt you didn’t need to legally pay back?
- Have you inadvertently restarted the clock by paying a small amount to a lender when it might have been better to wait?
- Are you dealing with the credit consequences of letting a debt expire?
Note: I am not a lawyer, and nothing written on Consumerism Commentary constitutes legal advice. Always check with an attorney before making any decisions regarding the law.
Updated June 23, 2016 and originally published February 7, 2012.