A "statute of limitations" is a law that tells you how long someone has to sue you. In California, most credit card companies and their debt collectors have only four years to do so. Once that period elapses, the credit card company or collector loses its right to file a lawsuit against you.
However, you or the creditor might do certain things that could reset or extend the statute of limitations. To avoid giving the credit card company more time to sue you, it's important to understand how California's statute of limitations works for credit card debt.
Your credit card company or debt collector must sue you in court within a certain amount of time, called the "statute of limitations." Or it loses its right to force you to pay your debt.
Each state makes its own laws regarding how many years your creditor has to file a lawsuit against you.
In most cases, when you get a credit card or sign any other type of credit agreement, you enter into a contract with the creditor and agree to make a monthly payment, including interest, until you repay the borrowed amount. The two types of contracts in California are written and oral contracts—and the statute of limitations differs for each of them.
Virtually all credit card agreements are written contracts. So, you and the credit card company put the terms of the agreement in writing. Often, you agree to the contract terms listed on the credit card application when you sign it.
In California, the statute of limitations for a written contract is four years.
It's unlikely that your credit card agreement is an oral contract, meaning that you entered into a verbal agreement with the credit card company and didn't write down the terms. But if it is an oral contract, the statute of limitations for an oral contract is two years.
The statute of limitations clock starts ticking when a cause of action "accrues." This usually means when you "breach," or break, the contract by not doing something you agreed to, such as not making a payment.
In California, the statute of limitations might start running on any one of these three events:
Usually, the statute of limitations calculation starts when your first missed payment becomes due. But in other cases (the details of which are beyond the scope of this article), the statute begins running on either the date of your last purchase or when you made your last payment.
Because these dates often occur close together, it doesn't make a difference in most cases. However, if using one of these dates causes the statute of limitations to expire before your credit card company filed its lawsuit, it might be worthwhile to contact legal counsel to see if that start date applies to your situation.
Calculating the statute of limitations isn't always easy. The credit card company might take some action, or you might inadvertently do something to change how much time the company gets to file a lawsuit against you.
Because some of these issues can be tricky, you should consult a legal professional if you are unclear about the statute of limitations period that applies to your case.
Sometimes the credit card company does something that temporarily stops the running of the statute of limitations or delays when it begins to run.
Your credit card company gives you additional time to pay. If your credit card company gives you additional time to make your payment, this action might extend the statute of limitations by delaying its start. For example, if you miss a payment on January 1, your creditor might extend your payment due date to April 1. Even if you never make that April 1 payment, the creditor could later argue that the additional time it gave you to pay extended the start date of the statute of limitations to April 1.
The statute of limitations is "tolled" due to unusual circumstances. Sometimes, the statute of limitations starts running but then is stopped ("tolled") for a period of time. Tolling can happen if the person with the right to sue is affected by an unusual circumstance, such as that person is legally insane, incarcerated, or away at war. Once the special circumstance is over (for example, the creditor gets out of prison), the statute of limitations starts running. Tolling rarely happens with credit card companies.
With credit card contracts, it's normal to make periodic payments. So, you must be careful not to reset the statute of limitations period accidentally.
You make a payment after not paying for a period of time. Once you stop paying, the statute of limitations begins running. If, however, you make a payment down the road, the statute of limitations resets.
No reset if your credit is revoked. The "reset" rule only applies if you still have a useable account. Once your credit card company closes your account, the statute of limitations doesn't restart if you make a payment.
While you can't verbally agree to waive the statute of limitations, in some cases, you can agree to waive it if you put the agreement in writing. So, it's a good idea to carefully read anything your credit card company asks you to sign.
You waive the statute of limitations in writing. Before the statute of limitations runs out, the creditor might ask you to sign a document extending it for an additional period. If you sign such a document, the creditor gets additional time to sue you. Some limits apply, however, on the length of the extension, which is usually four years.
You make a new promise to pay in writing. After the statute of limitations expires, the credit card company might ask you to sign an agreement promising you will pay the debt. You don't have to do so (rarely would you want to). But if you do sign such an agreement, it creates a new contract that obligates you to repay the debt. The statute of limitations on the old agreement is no longer relevant. If you default on a payment under the new contract, the statute of limitations begins running from that date.
Credit card companies and debt collectors must first sue you and get a judgment before forcing you to pay the debt against your will. A judgment is the court's way of saying that yes, you owe the money the creditor claims you owe, and an employer or bank requires this proof before handing over your money.
Once it has a judgment, a credit card company can:
If a creditor doesn't sue you by the statute of limitations deadline, it forever loses its right to get a judgment against you and use the above means of collection against you.
However, a creditor or collector doesn't have to stop calling you, and the delinquent debt can still harm your credit. It just can't force you to pay against your will.
Also, a creditor or collector might still file a lawsuit against you even if the statute of limitations has expired. If you get sued for a debt, but the statute of limitations has expired, you must answer the lawsuit and show that the suit is time-barred. (A "time-barred debt" is a debt where the statute of limitations has run out.)
If you don't respond to the suit, a judge might rule in favor of the creditor or collector.