Should I pay my original creditors or the collection agencies?

Dear Liz: I defaulted on my credit cards starting in 2003 because my business was failing. The last account was charged off in 2007. My business is now back and doing well, and I am expecting a nice little windfall in a couple of months. Should I pay these amounts I owe to the collection agencies that have been calling me, or should I contact and pay the creditors from which I obtained the credit cards?

Answer: You can try contacting the original creditors, but most likely they will refer you to the collection agencies. The original creditors have long since taken a tax deduction for their losses and sold the debts to those collectors, so they typically can’t accept payment for these accounts.

The collectors probably paid pennies on the dollar to buy your debts. The older the debt, the less they probably paid. Keep that in mind as you’re negotiating settlements of these debts, because you don’t have to pay 100 cents on the dollar for the collection agencies to realize a considerable profit.

As part of your negotiations, you’ll want to make sure to get the collector’s promise — in advance of any payment from you, and in writing — that it will not resell any unpaid portion of the debt. You may still face a tax liability on this unpaid debt, however, because debt forgiveness is typically considered taxable income.

You also should try to get the collector’s assurance — again, in advance and in writing — that it will stop reporting the collection accounts to the credit bureaus. This won’t eliminate the damage the unpaid debts are having on your credit scores, because the missed payments and charge-offs will remain on your credit reports for seven years and 180 days from when the accounts first went delinquent. But eliminating the collection accounts could boost your scores a bit.

Be aware that in many states, creditors can’t sue you over credit card debt that is too old–unless you do something like make a partial payment that can restart the so-called statute of limitations. You can read up on how statutes of limitations work at sites such as, and learn how to conduct such negotiations without inadvertently restarting the statute.

Liz Weston is “The most-read personal finance columnist on the Internet” (Nielsen/NetRatings) and author of “The 10 Commandments of Money” and “Your Credit Score.