Statute of Limitations on Debt Collection by State

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The “Statute of Limitations” for credit card debt is a law limiting the amount of time lenders and collection agencies have to sue consumers for nonpayment.

That time frame is set by each state and varies from just three years (in 13 states) to 10 years (two states) with the other 25 states somewhere in between.

The purpose of a statute of limitations for credit card debt is to prevent creditors from taking consumers to court long after evidence of the debt has been discarded or disappeared.

If the lender or debt collector wins a court judgment against a consumer, it opens the door on several options for collecting the debt, including wage garnishment and seizing property.

What Is a Statute of Limitations on Debt?

That statute of limitations is a state law that sets a deadline for the amount of time that parties must initiate legal proceedings against someone for unpaid debt.

The law does not eliminate the debt, it merely limits the time frame that a creditor or collection agency has to take legal action to collect it. The time frame varies from state-to-state but is generally 3-6 years.

It most often arises in civil matters where consumer debt is considered “time-barred,” meaning the statute of limitations has expired. Legal actions and threats of legal actions are prohibited when the case is time barred.

Nonetheless, consumers should not consider the statute of limitations a “Get Out of Jail, Free” card. You still owe the debt, and the collection agency has the right to pursue attempts to make you pay it. They just can’t take you to court over it.

Types of Debt

The statute of limitations can apply to criminal or civil proceedings and laws and time limitations vary from state-to-state, depending on the severity of the offense.

The statute of limitations most often comes into play in civil law cases involving borrowing and lending. These are the types of debt where the statute of limitations is involved:

  • Open-ended debt: An open-ended debt is a term for any loan that does not have a definite end date for repayment, such as a credit card or line of credit. The borrower can draw on the loan as many times as they wish, up to a pre-approved amount,
  • Written contract: This is a printed agreement between a lender and borrower stating the amount of money loaned, interest rate and fees for borrowing and repayment terms.
  • Oral contract. This is an agreement that is spoken, but not put in writing. It is considered legally binding, but proving its existence can be difficult.
  • Promissory note: This is a written promise by a borrower to pay a specific sum to the lender by a specific date. The lender doesn’t necessarily have to be a bank. It can be a friend/relative or the company someone works for.

Every state has its own statute of limitations for each type of debt. Written contracts and promissory notes have the longest timelines.

Statutes of Limitations for Each State (In Number of Years)

It is important that consumers understand that statute of limitation laws vary, depending on where you live. For example, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont have six-year statute of limitations for credit card debt, while neighboring New Hampshire’s is just three years.

Here is a chart showing the statute of limitations for all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C.

StateWritten contractsOral contractsPromissory notesOpen-ended accounts (including credit cards)
New Hampshire3363
New Jersey6666
New Mexico6464
New York3333
North Carolina3353
North Dakota6666
Rhode Island4101010
South Carolina3333
South Dakota6666
West Virginia10565

The debt doesn’t expire simply because it wasn’t collected in the time frame set by state law. The consumer still owes it, and debt collectors have a right to pursue it and make negative reports about it to the credit reporting bureaus.

That is just one of many, many nuances in the statute of limitations law. Here are 10 more nuances that you should know about before determining whether it helps or hurts your situation.

After Moving, Which State’s Laws on Debt Statute of Limitations Apply?

First thing to do is check the agreement you signed with the credit card company. Many card agreements have a clause in them called “choice of venue” that dictates which state court will preside over any conflicts. Typically, card companies or debt collectors want to file the case in whatever state they have the most advantages – i.e. state with the longest statute of limitations; state where courts have sided with creditors – but you can argue against any of them, if you have a compelling case. Bottom line here is this can be a tricky question and may require you to check with a consumer lawyer in your state.

When Does the Statute of Limitations Start?

The clock starts the date you make your last payment and runs for whatever time period is applicable in your state. If, for example, you haven’t made a payment on your credit card since January of 2021 and you live in California where the statute of limitations is four years, the SOL expires in January of 2025. If, at any time in between, you got tired of debt collectors harassing you and decided to make just one payment or sign an agreement to make a payment, the clock could start again on that date. Check the laws in your state to find out how long the statute of limitations applies and whether payment of any kind restarts the clock.

Can Debt Collectors Contact Or Sue After the Statute of Limitations Period Ends?

Yes, debt collectors can contact you after the statute of limitations has expired. You still owe the debt and if you don’t respond, the debt collector could still sue you. However, you can present a successful defense that the statute of limitations has expired … IF you show up for the court hearing. That “IF” is in caps because many consumers don’t appear in court. Either they don’t check their mail to see that a court date has been scheduled or simply ignore the summons to appear. If you don’t show up in court, you lose. Case closed. A judgment will be awarded against you.

» More About: What Happens If You Are Sued for Credit Card Debt

What Does “Time-Barred Debt” Mean?

A “time-barred debt” is a debt that is no longer legally collectible because the statute of limitations has run out on it. It also is the name of the defense you would use if a debt collector tried to sue you after the statute of limitations on your debt has expired.

What Should I Do If I Get Sued for a Time-Barred Debt?

You have a few options, but the best thing you can do is make sure you appear on the court date, or you will lose the suit. Once in court, you can use the “time-barred defense” and show paperwork that proves the statute of limitations has run out so the case will be dismissed. Beyond that, you have three clear options: A) Pay nothing. You should understand that the debt will negatively influence your credit score for seven years, but with no court judgment against you, you don’t legally have to pay. B) If your conscience gets involved, you can reach an agreement with the debt collector to pay the full amount or a partial amount to settle the debt. Either way, make sure the agreement is in writing and signed by both parties before making the first payment. Or C) Make a partial payment on the debt, which would be the least desirable choice. In many states, making a partial payment restarts the clock on the statute of limitations and may allow the debt collector to sue for the full amount.

Is There a Statute of Limitation for Court Judgments?

Yes, but be careful waiting for it to expire. The statute of limitations on court judgments ranges from three years (Oklahoma) to 21 years (Ohio), with most states somewhere around 10 years. The judgments are easily renewed so chances are that eventually you will have to confront the judgment and pay it. Be aware that states allow interest to collect on the judgments until the debt is paid off. The interest ranges from 4% above Fed (Kansas) to 14% (South Dakota).

What If I Can’t Pay a Court Judgment Against Me?

Court judgments are a bad thing and should be avoided at all costs. If the debt collector is aggressive – and we’ve never heard of one who isn’t – they will go after anything you own that has value. Depending on the laws in your state, the creditor could go after your home, car, boat, property or even that 66-inch flat screen in your living room. If they can take it and sell it for the money they’re owed, they will. At the very least, they can put a lien against those assets, meaning you can’t sell what you own without settling up with the creditor first.

Does Debt Leave My Credit Report After the Statute of Limitations?

No. A delinquent debt stays on your credit report for seven years, regardless of whether the statute of limitations has expired. That delinquent debt loses impact over time, but it does remain there for seven years.

How Can I Verify That the Debt Is Really Mine?

If you get a call from a debt collector, never assume the debt they are trying to collect is legitimate. Do research and make sure you own it, and the statute of limitations hasn’t expired. Your first step is to insist on a debt validation notice from the debt collector. Ask the debt collector for their name, the company’s name, the street address, telephone number and a professional license number. Then ask the company to mail you a “validation notice,” which details how much you owe and the name of the creditor seeking payment. The validation notice must be sent within five days of when the debt collector first contacts you. You have 30 days to dispute the debt in the validation notice. It is wise to have your credit report available when you receive the validation notice so you can compare the information between the two and determine if the debt is yours.

How Does the FDCPA Apply to Debt After the Statute of Limitations Expires?

You still owe the debt, and debt collectors can still try to collect it, but they can’t violate provisions in the FDCPA. In other words, they can’t harass you, threaten you, misrepresent the amount owe, claim that you’ll be arrested, etc. If the debt collector does pursue payment of the debt, you can send a “cease communications” letter that stops debt collectors from contacting you. The letter should be sent by certified mail so there is a record of the debt collector receiving it. If the debt collector violates terms of the FDCPA, contact your local attorney general’s office, the Federal Trade Commission or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and file a complaint. You also can sue the debt collector for damages and be awarded up to $1,000.

About The Author

Joey Johnston

Joey Johnston has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist with the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times. He has won a dozen national writing awards and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and People Magazine. He started writing for InCharge Debt Solutions in 2016.


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