Except for in a few states where the expiration of the statute of limitations extinguishes a debt, a debt collector can still contact you and ask you to pay up, even if the statute of limitations on a debt has passed.
The most important thing is not to say or do anything—whether on the phone or in a written communication—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.
If you answer a collections suit by saying that the statute of limitations prevents the collector from getting a judgment, 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 might be unenforceable. If you think you might 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.
Reviving a statute of limitations means that the entire time period begins again. Depending on your state, this revival 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, a partial payment will only toll the statute rather than revive it.
A new promise to pay a debt might also revive the statute of limitations in some circumstances. In most states, an oral promise can revive a statute of limitations, but the promise must be in writing in a few states.
For a state-by-state chart on statutes of limitations for various debts, get Solve Your Money Troubles: Debt, Credit & Bankruptcy by Amy Loftsgordon and Cara O'Neill (Nolo). This book contains everything you need to get out of debt and repair your credit.
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