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Can debt collectors collect a debt that’s several years old?

A debt doesn’t generally expire or disappear until its paid, but in many states, there may be a time limit on how long creditors or debt collectors can use legal action to collect a debt.

In many states, statues of limitations are in place to prevent creditors and debt collectors from using legal action to collect on an older debt. Some debts, though, such as federal student loans don’t have a statute of limitations.

Most states or jurisdictions have statutes of limitations between three and six years for debts, but some may be longer. This may also vary depending, for instance, on the:

  • Type of debt
  • State where you live
  • State law named in your credit agreement

If you’re sued by a debt collector and the debt is too old, you may have a defense to the lawsuit. In addition, you may have a claim against the collector for violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits suing or threatening to sue for a time-barred debt.

When does the statute of limitations period begin?

In some states, the statute of limitations period begins once a required payment is missed. In other states, the period of time counts from when the most recent payment was made, even if that payment was made during collection.

Keep in mind that making a partial payment or acknowledging you owe an old debt, even after the statute of limitations expired, may restart the time period. It may also be affected by terms in the contract with the creditor or if you moved to a state where the laws differ.

To calculate the statute of limitations for your debt, you may want to consult with a lawyer.

Can a debt collector collect debts or sue me after the statute of limitations expires?

In most states, debt collectors can still attempt to collect debts after the statute of limitations expires. They can try to get you to pay the debt by sending you letters or calling you as long as they do not violate the law when doing so. They can’t sue or threaten to sue you if the statute of limitations has passed. However, this prohibition doesn’t extend to proofs of claim that are filed in connection with a bankruptcy proceeding.

A lawsuit filed after the statute of limitations expires is a violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, but a court may still award a judgment against you if you don’t show up and raise the statute of limitations as a defense. Ordinarily, it’s the responsibility of the person being sued to point out that the statute of limitations has expired. For example, you may need to show that there has been no activity on the account for a certain number of years. Again, if you have questions about the law, consider consulting an attorney.

If you're having trouble with debt collection, you can submit a complaint with the CFPB.

Learn more about debt collection.