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What is a statute of limitations on a debt?

A statute of limitations is the limited period of time creditors or debt collectors have to file a lawsuit to recover a debt.

Most statutes of limitations fall in the three-to-six year range, although in some jurisdictions they may extend for longer depending on the type of debt. They may vary by:

  • State laws
  • What type of debt you have
  • Whether the state law applicable is named in your credit agreement

Under state laws, there are often legal time limits within which a creditor or debt collector must start a lawsuit or the claim may be “barred.” These laws are called “statutes of limitation. If you're sued about a debt and the debt is too old, you may have a defense to the lawsuit.

In some states, the statute of limitations period begins when you failed to make a required payment on a debt. In other states it is counted from when you made your most recent payment, even if that payment was made during collection. In some states, even a partial payment on the debt will restart the time period.

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 while doing so. However, a debt collector filing or threatening to file a lawsuit after the statute of limitations has expired may be violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Even if the statute of limitations has expired, 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 is 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.

If you are sued, it is a good idea to talk to an attorney. It is important to know you can defend yourself if you believe the statute of limitations has expired on your debts.

The CFPB has prepared sample letters that you can use to respond to a debt collector who is trying to collect a debt. These letters include tips on how to use them.  The sample letters may help you to get information, including information about the age of the debt.  The letters may also help you set limits or stop any further communication, or exercise some of your rights.

If you're having trouble with debt collection, you can submit a complaint with the CFPB online or by calling (855) 411-CFPB (2372).

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