This article was written by Lemberg Law staff, and reviewed by Sergei Lemberg, the managing attorney of Lemberg Law.
Each state has statutes of limitations that determine when different types of debts become unenforceable. The number of years varies widely. Several states deem that open-ended accounts are time-barred after three years, while others mandate that debts are enforceable up to eight or ten years.
Does a Debt Expire?
A debt never actually expires, meaning that you will always owe the money. However, there does come a time when you’re not legally required to pay the debt. A debt becomes legally unenforceable once a certain number of years passes and the statute of limitations is reached. In other words, once a debt is time-barred, then a debt collector can no longer sue you in court or get a judgment forcing you to pay the debt.
What Can Restart the Statute of Limitations?
Debt collectors attempt to circumvent the statute of limitations by convincing consumers to make a payment – even a few dollars – on a time-barred debt. As soon as the payment is made, the clock resets, making the debt current once again.
While a debt collector can try to talk you into making a payment and resetting the statute of limitations, they cannot threaten to sue you in order to get you to make that payment. The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), specifically 15 U.S.C. 1692e(5), prohibits debt collectors from falsely representing the legal status of any debt, as well as from threatening to take any action that cannot legally be taken. In other words, if a debt collector threatens to sue you over a time-barred debt, they are in violation of the FDCPA.
In Bentley vs. Great Lakes Collection Bureau, the debt collection agency sent two letters to the consumer. The first included language that said, “Our client has instructed us to proceed with whatever legal means is necessary to enforce collection.” The second said, “[Y]our delinquent account has been referred to my desk, where a decision must be made as to what direction must be taken to enforce collection. Were our client to retain legal counsel in your area, and it was determined that suit should be filed against you, it could result in a judgment.” The court found that these threats – which the agency didn’t act upon – were violations of the FDCPA.
What if a debt collector files suit after the Statute of Limitations expires?
If a debt collector files suit after the statute of limitations has expired, they are likely in violation of the FDCPA (15 U.S.C. 1692f), which prohibits collecting money unless it is permitted by law. That doesn’t mean, however, that a court will automatically throw the case out. In Sykes vs. Mel S. Harris and Associates, LLC, it was revealed that a debt buyer, a company that typically buys buckets of old debt for pennies on the dollar, had obtained more than 100,000 court judgments against consumers because they never notified the consumer that they were being sued. If you do receive a notice that you are being sued over a debt that is past the statute of limitations, don’t assume that a court will throw it out. You need to defend yourself against the suit and argue that the debt is unenforceable. A fair debt attorney can help you through this process, and potentially sue the debt collector for FDCPA violations.
Time-barred debt can also rear its head in bankruptcy proceedings. In the 2017 case, Midland Funding vs. Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a debt buyer doesn’t violate the FDCPA when it files a claim for a time-barred debt against a consumer during a bankruptcy proceeding. Ms. Johnson had asserted that Midland violated 15 U.S.C. 1692e, the section of the FDCPA prohibiting false or misleading representations in connection with a debt, because the company had filed a claim for a debt that even Midland admitted was more than ten years old. The Supreme Court overturned an appellate court’s ruling, finding that the the bankruptcy claim was not false or misleading, and writing, “Alabama’s law, like the law of many States, provides that a creditor has the right to payment of a debt even after the limitations period has expired.” While this case pertained to a bankruptcy proceeding, and not a lawsuit filed by a debt collector in order to collect a time-barred debt, it does open the floodgates for debt buyers to make claims for unenforceable debts when consumers file for bankruptcy.
What is the statute of limitations in my state?
It’s important to note that each state has its own statute of limitations, and that the number of years a debt is enforceable can vary with the type of debt. For example, written contracts may have a different statute of limitations than oral debts. The same holds true for promissory notes and open-ended accounts. Open-ended accounts include those that have revolving credit, such as credit cards.
|State Statutes of Limitations|
|State||Written contracts||Oral contracts||Promissory notes||Revolving accounts
(including credit cards)
|Georgia||6||4||6||4 or 6**|
** The Georgia Court of Appeals decided in 2008 that the statute of limitations on credit cards is six years rather than the four years set by the Legislature.
While the number of years after which debts expire varies from state to state, you do have rights related to collection of time-barred debts under both state and federal law. Lemberg Law has a team devoted to representing people who have been harassed, threatened, deceived, or abused by debt collectors. Call 475-277-1600 and receive a free consultation, or submit our online request form.
Bentley vs. Great Lakes Collection Bureau, Inc., 6 F.3d 60, 62-63 (2d Cir.1993)
Sykes vs. Mel S. Harris and Associates, LLC, No. 09 Civ. 8486 (S.D.N.Y.)
Midland Funding, LLC vs. Johnson, 581 U.S. ___ (2017)
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