What You Need to Know About the Statute of Limitations When it Comes to Credit Card Debt
If you have serious credit card debt, you may or may not have heard the term “statute of limitations” bandied about regarding debt. But regardless of whether you’ve heard the term in this context before or are just now hearing it for the first time, the juxtaposition of personal debt and a term most of us associate with criminal law is likely rather confusing, if not a bit unsettling.
So what exactly does a statue of limitations have to do with the money you owe, and how does it affect your situation? Let’s find out.
Statute of limitations for written contracts
While there are many different types of Statutes of Limitations (SOL), ranging all the way from those that apply to oral contracts to those applying to professional malpractice, libel and slander, when it comes to credit card companies, the statute we’re concerned with is the one for written contracts.
Each state has its own SOL, which dictates the length of time you can successfully be sued for failing to pay back money that you owe to a creditor.
The clock, if you will, begins when you last make a payment toward your debt and runs for a state-specified period of time, ranging from three years in Alaska, D.C., Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire and the Carolinas to 15 years in Kentucky and Ohio.
The average SOL across all states is 6.35 years. Keep in mind, however, that the SOL clock may reset if you:
- Make a payment toward your debt (all states)
- Sign a document in which you acknowledge that you owe money in the first place (some states)
- Sign a document in which you promise to pay back what you owe (some states)
You should therefore obviously avoid doing such things, unless they are part of an official, mutually beneficial payment plan reached between you and your creditor that removes the possibility of a lawsuit.
Your debt collection rights
Ok, but what happens if you’re about to get sued for failing to repay money you owe, or this has already happened? What rights and recourses do you have then?
Well, the first thing you need to know is that debt collectors are not legally allowed to threaten a lawsuit unless one is seriously being considered. Second, you not only have the right to dispute your debt, but you can also sue debt collectors in state or federal court if the situation warrants it. Third, while time may be on your side, you have to speak up for it to really matter. In other words, you can still be sued even after the statute of limitations expires, but the lawsuit will be dismissed if you prove to the court that your debt is older than your state’s statute of limitations.
Other than that, you don’t have many concrete rights, but it is important to keep in mind that:
- The SOL of your state of residence at the time you entered into the contract with the credit card company will typically apply.
- If you entered into a credit card agreement while living in a state with a short SOL, then moved to a state with a long SOL and were subsequently sued for outstanding charges, you will be able to make a compelling argument that the shorter SOL should apply, as you entered into the contract with the understanding that it would be legally relevant only for that particular period of time.
Is it a good idea to wait out the statute of limitations for debt?
Ultimately, we only suggest waiting out the statute of limitations for debt you are unable to repay if you have exhausted all other options. If your creditor will not accept any deal that you can afford (DO NOT agree to any payment plan that you cannot sustain comfortably), and you have a large amount of unsecured debt, then a consultation with a bankruptcy attorney may be the logical next step. If that proves fruitless, only then might waiting out your state’s statute be your best bet.
Should waiting out the statute of limitations for debt be the road you end up taking, make sure to stick to your guns and know that you have rights because debt collectors will likely try every trick in the book to induce a payment and reset the statute of limitations clock.
Odysseas Papadimitriou is CEO of Card Hub, a leading online marketplace for second chance credit cards, secured credit cards, and debt help.