If you have old debts, collectors may not be able to sue you to collect on them. That’s because debt collectors have a limited number of years — known as the statute of limitations — to sue you to collect. After that, your unpaid debts are considered “time-barred.” According to the law, a debt collector cannot sue you for not paying a debt that’s time-barred.

This gets tricky for consumers because the statute of limitations varies from state to state and for different kinds of debts. It is also tricky because, under certain circumstances, the clock can be reset, and the time period can be started fresh. That’s why the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, says it’s important to understand your rights if a debt collector contacts you about an old debt.

Under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), a debt collector is someone who regularly collects debts owed to others. This includes collection agencies, lawyers who collect debts on a regular basis, and companies that buy unpaid debts and then try to collect them. The term ‘debt collector’ doesn’t include original creditors who collect their own debts.

When is an old debt too old for a collector to sue?

time-barred debt

Typically, state law determines how long the statute of limitations lasts. Usually, the clock starts ticking when you fail to make a payment; when it stops depends on two things: the type of debt and the law that applies either in the state where you live or the state specified in your credit contract. For example, the statute of limitations for credit card debt in a few states may be as long as 10 years, but most states impose a period of three to six years. 

To determine the statute of limitations on different kinds of debts under each state’s law, check with a debt collection defense lawyer. The statute of limitations for a debt is usually different from the reporting period for a debt on your credit report.  In general, negative information stays on your credit report for seven years.

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