The most important thing is not to say or do anything (whether on the phone or in a letter) that in any way acknowledges that you owe the debt. Acknowledging the debt or making even a token payment can extend or revive the statute of limitations in some states. (For more on dealing with debt collectors, see Nolo's article Dealing With Collection Agencies FAQ.)
If you claim that the statute of limitations prevents a collector from suing you for a debt, the collector might argue that you have waived, extended, or revived the statute of limitations in your earlier dealings.
If you waive the statute of limitations on a debt, it means you give up your right to assert it as a defense later on. The law makes it very difficult for a consumer to waive the statute of limitations by accident. A court will uphold a waiver only if you understood what you were doing when you agreed to waive the statute of limitations for your debt. In certain circumstances, even then a waiver may be unenforceable. If you think you may have waived the statute of limitations, you should still raise it as a defense (and force the creditor to demonstrate that you waived it).
Extending the statute is often called "tolling." Tolling or extending the statute temporarily stops the clock for a particular reason, such as the collector agreeing to extend your time to pay.
For example, Emily owes the Farmer's Market $345. The statute of limitations for this type of debt in her state is six years. Normally the statute would begin to run when Emily stopped paying the debt, but Farmer's gave her an additional six months to pay (and therefore tolled or extended the statute of limitations for six months). After six months, Emily still cannot pay the debt. The six-year statute of limitations begins to run at this point.
Reviving a statute of limitations means that the entire time period begins again. Depending on your state, this can happen if you make a partial payment on a debt or otherwise acknowledge that you owe a debt that you haven't been paying. In some states, partial payment will only "toll" the statute rather than revive it.
For example, Ethan owes Memorial Hospital $1,000. The statute of limitations for medical debts in his state is four years. He stopped making payments on the debt in 2006. The four-year statute began to run at this point. In 2009, Ethan made a $300 payment and then stopped making payments again. In Ethan's state, his partial payment of $300 revived the statute of limitations. The hospital now has four years from the date of his $300 payment to sue Ethan for the remainder of the debt.
A new promise to pay a debt may also revive the statute of limitations in some circumstances. In most states, an oral promise can revive a statute of limitations, although in a few states the promise must be in writing.
For a state-by-state chart on statutes of limitations for various debts, get Solve Your Money Troubles: Debt, Credit & Bankruptcy, by Margaret Reiter and Robin Leonard (Nolo). This book contains everything you need to get out of debt and repair your credit.
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