Ask Stacy: Is There a Statute of Limitations on Debt?

You have an old debt that’s beyond the statute of limitations and long ago dropped off your credit history. Then one day you get a call from a debt collector insisting you pay it. Can they do that?

You probably know that if you owe money, the company you owe can do lots of things to try to collect it — like damaging your credit score, sending a collection agency after you, and suing you in court. But can they come after you for the rest of your life?

Nothing lasts forever. Nearly all transgressions in our society have a limit beyond which those doing the pursuing have to give it up. It’s called the “statute of limitations.” While there are a few crimes that don’t have one — murder, for example — debt does. Here’s today’s reader question:

I have an old catalog debt that was placed into collections. This debt has finally been removed from my credit reports for a few years now from all three credit bureaus. Yet I have recently started getting letters again from a collection agency regarding this debt. To the best of my knowledge, this account is also past the Florida statute of limitations. What should I do about this? Is there a time frame when they can no longer harass you for payment?

If I start paying on it again, will it be placed back onto my credit report? (I don’t want it placed back on my credit report. I’ve worked hard getting my credit back in good standing.) Should I pay it off? Or should I just ignore the situation?

Any advice you can offer would help me a lot. Thank you so much. – Tammy

Here’s the deal, Tammy.

While there’s nothing barring a company from attempting to collect forever, their legal remedies do expire, and those are defined by the laws in your state. To find the statute of limitations on debt, check out this chart from, or this one from In Florida, they have four years to collect a bad debt for “open accounts” — the category that includes credit card debt.

But just because they can’t win in court doesn’t mean they can’t sue. Nor does the statute of limitations prevent them from calling you, sending you letters or otherwise trying to get you to pay. In fact, this practice is quite common. Collection agencies and law firms routinely buy old debts for pennies on the dollar and attempt to collect them. And they’re certainly not above saying or doing just about anything to get you back on the hook.

Tread carefully

The laws regarding debt collection are tricky. For example, there are states that allow otherwise legally noncollectable debts to be reinstated if the consumer makes a payment — or even acknowledges the debt.

Keep in mind that after the statute of limitations expires, unless the debt has been charged off or discharged in bankruptcy, you still owe the money. In other words, the statute of limitations doesn’t wipe out the debt, it just reduces the legal remedies available to collect it.

So if you find yourself in this situation, the smart move is to call a consumer lawyer (you can find one at the National Association of Consumer Advocates’ website) and ask the attorney what to do.

Do this before responding in any way to any collection notice or other contact from a collection agency. Otherwise, you might inadvertently make yourself liable for an old debt.

Your credit report

What shows up on your credit report is determined not by state but federal law. The credit reporting agencies (ExperianTransUnion and Equifax) have to remove most negative information after seven years. Bankruptcies can remain on your report for up to 10 years, and there are some other, less common debts, like unpaid taxes and child support, that can remain on your report indefinitely.

The seven-year period normally begins 180 days after the debt becomes delinquent — the day you first missed a payment. But if you start once again making payments, the debt could reappear.

Here’s what to do

There are plenty of places to learn more (this article from Liz Weston, for example). But no matter how much you read and think you understand, I’d still advise at least talking to, if not hiring, a lawyer. The more money at stake, the more important this becomes.

You should also know there are scenarios when you might get an attorney without paying for one. See “Abused by a Debt Collector? Get a Free Lawyer.”

While I’m all for do-it-yourself solutions for everything from remodeling to making a will, this area is too much of a minefield to go it alone. It’s a complex topic, and reading simple stuff online probably won’t answer all of your questions or completely put you at ease. However, talking to someone who does this for a living will.

Got a question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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  • adoption revolution

    The credit agencies HAVE to remove negative reports after 7 years? Does that mean we don’t have to contact the actual company to remove the offending report. That hasn’t been my experience…would love some feedback.

    • The Fair Credit Reporting Act says delinquent accounts can show up on your credit report for up to seven years from the time your first delinquent payment was originally due on the account. Showing the debt after than time violates the law. It’s the Credit Reporting Agency that’s in violation, and they should be contacted – not the company you originally owed.

      • adoption revolution

        Thanks Stacy! I haven’t found this to be true. My storage space acct, wrongly by the way, told me I owed them an extra month when I moved out, and this was over 10 years ago. I had to call the ss 5 times before it was removed. Do you have to contact all 3 agencies to have something removed? Do you do it by e-mail or talk to them? Is it removed from credit report if the actual company tells you they will remove it?

        • You should dispute any negative items over 7 years old with any of the three CRAs, which you can do online. If there’s an error, they’re required to notify the others.

    • Alicia Whitehead

      That’s how it is supposed to work, but it is technically the responsibility of the creditor because they bureaus go based on the last reporting of the item, even if the item hasn’t been reported again in 5 years. This si where a lot of inaccuracies come from in reporting.

  • Subramaniam Balaraman

    The time limitation is only for no action period . If some debtor sends a notice within the statutory time limit ,a new time cycle starts and complicate things ..

    • Alicia Whitehead

      Statute of limitations on debt begins at the date of last payment or the date of first delinquency. period. Nothing starts this over unless you make a payment, agree to a payment or settlement. This is federal law. If you were told otherwise, the source may not have gotten accurate information or was told by someone who was trying to hide the “REAL” way Statute of limitations works.
      For example, in the state of Missouri, credit card last payment 09/01/2007- this makes it almost 7 years old. It has a balance of $1000… they can try to pursue you on a breach of contract (10 year statute of limitations) but if you know your rights, this is actually a Statute of 5 years (OPEN BALANCE)… this doesn’t mean they won’t win if you don’t show up in court. This means that you show up to court and it goes away… ORAL Contract in Missouri is 5 years and Promissory Note in Missouri is also 10 years. This varies by state.

  • John Hoffman

    How about a loan to someone that you put in writing?

  • Truth slayer

    Child support arrears are never removed, even if the State is a slacker

  • LynAnn

    Thanks for this good information! I am finally approaching the time (7 years) when all my bad debts will disappear from my credit reports! But annoyingly, for every debt that was charged off almost 7 years ago, there is a corresponding purchase by a pennies-on-the-dollar debt collector who is listing these debts as “open”, and these collectors continue to report non-payment every month. I’m assuming these so called “open” debts will disappear when the original debts leave my credit report. Further, why are these debt collectors allowed to report (or even buy debts) after the original creditor as listed them as “charged off”?

  • A Ross

    I have a HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit) on my house in California with a different company than my primary mortgage company (1st deed of trust). I have not made a payment on this HELOC in over 3 years. They call me every so often to try to get me to make a payment. Will this debt go away after 7 years of non-payment? Or can they take me to court to collect the HELOC, even though the only recourse as I understand it, is to try to foreclose, and I understand (correct me if I’m wrong) they cannot foreclose as they are in second position against the primary mortgage company. If I sell the house after 7 years of non-payment on the HELOC can they still recoup their HELOC after the sale of the house?

  • brenton

    I have the same question as A Ross. I have not made a payment on my 2nd for 4 or 5 yrs. I heard that most 2nds are secured by a 2nd deed of trust and therefor, when you sell or refi the property, this debt will come up when the company does a title search and you will have to pay the debt, so if this is true, it is best to make a settlement offer on the debt before placing the property for sale or preparing to refi. Pennies on the dollar!!! STACY, IS THIS CORRECT? I am in Calif also.

    • First, let me say that while I’ve been writing about and reporting on debt for more than 20 years, I’m not a lawyer and my advice shouldn’t be construed as if I were.

      With that proviso, here’s what I think: We’re dealing with three different issues here. The first is how long credit reporting agencies may report a delinquent account. The answer is most cases is 7 years. There are exceptions, the most common of which are unpaid child support (indefinite) and bankruptcy (depending on the type, up to 10 years.) After that time, the agencies may no longer legally report the account.

      The second issue is whether you can use the statute of limitations to avoid paying a debt. The answer is you can. If a debt has surpassed that date, which varies by state, a debt collector will be unsuccessful in suing you in court and establishing a judgement, as long as you show up and assert that defense. If you don’t show up, it will be waived.

      The third issue is secured debts, which include mortgages of any variety: first, HELOC, 2nd mortgage, etc. These debts, unlike credit cards, are secured by your home. Your home can be foreclosed for non-payment, and you won’t be able to collect the proceeds on a sale without paying them. This type of debt also has a statute of limitations, however, which can be asserted in court to prevent foreclosure. Here’s an article that will help you learn more about that and check the statute of limitations in your state.

  • brenton

    I have the same question as A Ross. I live in calif. I was told that even though the debt becomes 7 yrs old on a HELOC, when you go to sell or refinance the property, the title company will see that you still owe the debt and you will have to pay it before closing escrow. It is better then, that being true?, to settle before listing the property for sale. STACEY, IS THIS CORRECT?

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