If the statute of limitations—the time period in which a creditor must sue you—has run on an old credit card debt, a collection agency can still contact you and ask you to pay up. Read on to learn what the statute of limitations is, and why the creditor or collector can still demand payment from you. (Learn more about the statute of limitations in the collection context.)
The statute of limitations is a rule that sets a time limit within which a creditor may sue you for payment of a debt. The length of time that a creditor has to sue you on an unpaid debt varies from state to state. In some states, it's four years. In other states, it might be longer. The time limit may also depend on whether your agreement with the creditor is in writing or not, and whether the debt is a special type, like a revolving or open-ended account. (To find out your state's statute of limitations for various types of debts, see Chart: Statutes of Limitations in All 50 States.)
If the time limit to sue on the old debt expired under your state's statute of limitations, that does not mean that a creditor or bill collector must stop contacting you about it. They can ask you to pay the debt. They just can't sue you—or threaten to sue you—for it.
If a debt collector contacts you about an old, time-barred debt, be very careful in what you say to the bill collector. If you say or sign anything that might be considered an acknowledgement of the validity of the debt (meaning, you agree that you owe that debt even if the statute of limitations to sue has expired), then you may have revived, waived, or extended the statute of limitations. Or, if you make an agreement with that bill collector to pay the old debt, then you also may revive, waive or extend the statute of limitations. (For more information, see What Should You Do if a Collector Tries to Collect a Time-Barred Debt?)
If you're unsure whether the debt has expired under your state's statute of limitations, and you ask the debt collector if that debt is time-barred—the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) requires that the collector tell the truth. If the debt is time-barred, but the debt collector has threatened to sue you or take other legal action to pressure you into settling that debt, then it might have violated the FDCPA; the FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from threatening legal action on a time-barred debt.
If you're contacted about an old, time-barred debt, you should take a look at your credit report. Often, bill collectors or creditors report negative information about the debt as if it's recent information. This might be a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. (To learn more about this often-illegal practice, see Debt Buyers & Your Credit Report.)