Will Paying-Off Collection Accounts Increase My Credit Score

Will my credit score improve if I pay off my collection accounts?

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Bill's Answer: Answered by Mark Cappel

Should you pay a collection account? Great question! Before we get to your question, let’s define some words and phrases collection agents use, and talk about three issues you need to think about before taking any action.

If you have an unpaid debt, you may wish it just goes away. But original creditors and collection agents see unpaid debts as assets. Like almost any other asset, an unpaid debt can be bought, sold, or traded. Debt collectors and original creditors call bad debts “collection accounts.”

Your collection account can appear more than once on your credit report. Its history will start with the original creditor, and then reappear on your credit report as collection agents buy, sell, and trade your account. Your collection accounts may move through many collection agencies, and your credit report will show this chain of ownership.

What’s a Derogatory?

The credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — call collection accounts “derogatories.” Derogatories are negative accounts that drag down your credit score. Most collection accounts and other derogatories are allowed to appear on your credit report for 7 years. The starting point for the 7-year rule is the date of first delinquency. In other words, the 7-year clock starts when you miss your first payment.

Wise Advice Just because something appears on your credit report does not make it a fact. Review your credit reports once a year to dispute errors that harm your credit score.

Dishonest collection agents change the date of first delinquency to a later date. This violates federal law. They do this, it seems, to make a collection account appear longer on your credit report, thinking its lengthy appearance will add pressure for you to pay the debt.

Pay or Ignore a Collection Account?

You may wonder if it is worth your while to pay a collection account. Let’s look at this question from three different angles:

  1. Your state’s statute of limitations
  2. The credit report 7-year rule
  3. A collection account’s impact on your credit score

Let’s get some misinformation out of the way first. You may read statements from some who say, “You don’t have a legal obligation to pay a collection agent anything because you never had a contract with the collection agent.” This argument doesn’t hold water. Original creditors reserve the right to sell their collection accounts. This gives the collection agent who buys your collection account the legal right to collect the face value of the debt. You may have some other reason you do not need to pay an old collection account, but it won’t be due to this bogus argument.

1) Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitation is a time limit. Once the statute of limitations clock runs out on a crime, for example, the district attorney can no longer charge anyone with the crime. Statutes of limitations for debt are a bit different and more complicated.

For debt, the statute of limitations is a civil matter. Being in debt is not a crime. When someone files a civil lawsuit against you, always look at the statute of limitations. If the statute of limitations clock has run out, then you can file a motion with the court that says, “Hey, everything here might be true, but because the clock has run out, the court must dismiss the case.”

Wise Advice Statute of limitations rules can get tricky if you sign a contract in one state then move to another, or if you and the other party reside in different states. Read the Bills.com article How to Tell Which Statute of Limitations Applies to You if your facts are complicated.

Every state’s statute of limitations rules vary. Learn your state's statute of limitations rules for the type of debt in your collection account. If your state’s statute of limitations clock on your collection account has run out or is about to run out, you can use this to your advantage. More about this later.

If your collection account’s statute of limitations clock has expired, you have no legal obligation to pay the debt. If your collection account’s statute of limitations clock as run out, a collection agent cannot use a lawsuit threat to try to convince you it’s serious about collecting the debt. Any threat of this kind is not only hollow, it is also illegal.

Two confusing things about statutes of limitation and collection accounts trip-up many people:

  • An expired statute of limitations clock does not prevent lawsuits. Some original creditors and collection agents file lawsuits against consumers even though the statute of limitations clock has expired. This is legal in all but two states. You may wonder why someone would file a lawsuit they know could be defeated so easily. Many consumers do not understand statutes of limitations laws, or bother to hire lawyers to defend them. This is unfortunate, but consumers who do not defend themselves lose by default. Consult with a lawyer if you receive a written notice of a lawsuit.
  • The statute of limitations clock is separate from the 7-year credit report clock. Some state statutes of limitations are shorter than 7 years, but some are longer. Keep these two clocks separate in your mind because they are for separate things.

2) The Credit Report 7-Year Rule

As mentioned above, most collection accounts can appear on your credit report for 7 years. Collection agents cannot change the date of first delinquency to make the collection account appear for more than 7 years.

Wise Advice The 7-year rule can be found in the Fair Credit Reporting Act, a federal law that sets the rules for credit reports and the companies that create this information, including Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

Dishonest collection agents will claim that as long as the collection account appears on your credit report, you have a legal obligation to pay the debt. That’s not true.

If the 7-year clock on your collection account is about to run out, you can use this to your advantage. More about this later.

3) Credit Scores & Collection Accounts

A collection account harms your credit score as long as it appears on your credit report. However, credit score software like FICO and VantageScore put less and less weight on a derogatory the longer it appears on your credit report. A fresh collection account harms your credit score more than one that is 6 years old.

Generally, credit scoring software does not reward or punish you for paying off an old collection account. Your credit score is damaged when a creditor reports negative things about you to Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The most damaging are missing payments and allowing your account to become so delinquent it becomes a collection account. Unfortunately, paying-off a collection account usually does not reverse the damage caused by your missed payments.

Wise Advice The two biggest credit score companies are FICO and VantageScore. About 90% of lenders use FICO. FICO does not notice if a collection account is paid or unpaid. VantageScore treats paid-off collection accounts differently. VantageScore ignores paid-off collection accounts, which reverses the damage caused by the delinquency.

Should I Pay or Ignore My Collection Account?

If a collection agent is pressuring you into paying a collection account, follow these four steps.

Two Collection Account Examples
Source: Bills.com
A collection agent contacts…
Facts …Sharon about a $650 debt she stopped paying 5 years ago …Tom about a $2,000 debt he stopped paying 2 years ago
Statute of Limitations 4 years in Sharon’s state 6 years in Tom’s state
Pay the debt? No legal obligation to pay because the SOL clock expired 1 year ago Tom may be obligated to pay the debt. He should validate the debt, and proceed accordingly.
  1. Validate the debt to make sure you really owe the debt. Just because a collection agent claims you owe a debt does not mean you do. Follow the directions on the page just mentioned to learn the steps to validate a debt properly. If the collection agent cannot validate the debt, it may not collect it.
  2. Learn your state’s statute of limitations to see if you have a legal obligation to pay the debt.
  3. If the time from your last payment on the debt to the present is longer than your statute of limitations, then you have a defense you can use if the original creditor or the collection agent file a lawsuit against you. In other words, you have no legal obligation to pay the debt.
  4. If the time from your last payment to the present is less than your state’s statute of limitations, then you cannot use the statute of limitations as a defense. In other words, you may have a legal obligation to pay the debt.

If the debt has not reached the end of your state’s statute of limitations, then consider negotiating a settlement to the debt.

When it comes to lawsuits, creditors are unpredictable. Some will file a small claims lawsuit for debts less than $500. It would be logical to assume creditors sue only people who have the ability to pay a judgment. However, Bills.com readers have reported creditors suing people with no income or assets.

Pay Debt to Improve a Credit Score?

If you see a collection account or two dragging your score down and you want to improve your score, then your options are limited.

Wise Advice Learn 7 techniques to improve your credit score. All of these techniques cost you little or nothing, are not gimmicks, and are based on information from FICO.

As mentioned, FICO will not increase your credit score when you pay-off a collection account. Because almost all mortgage lenders and many auto finance companies use FICO, paying-off a collection account will not increase the score lenders see.

Is it wasteful to pay-off a collection account? No, for three reasons:

  1. Your creditworthiness is more than a number. Lenders look at more than just your FICO score when determining your creditworthiness. Many lenders view paying off old debt as a sign of goodwill and trustworthiness. The lender looks beyond your score to see patterns of payments and commitment to financial obligations. A prospective lender likes to see a person who pays their debts, even if it notices a few bumps along the way.
  2. Your amount of debt matters. Lenders look at your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio as an important measure of your ability to repay a loan. Paying-off an old collection account will improve your DTI ratio and may make you a more attractive loan candidate.
  3. You avoid a lawsuit when you settle. If the statute of limitations has not run out on your collection account, the creditor can file a lawsuit against you. If it wins, the court will award it a judgment. The judgment will harm your credit score. The judgment creditor can use the judgment to garnish your wages, levy your bank accounts, place a lien on your property, and ask the sheriff to seize your personal property.

Visit the Bills.com credit resource page to learn more about credit scores and credit issues.

I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.

Best,

Bill

Bills.com

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Comments (165)


Jay C.
Chicago, IL  |  December 17, 2013
Will paying a collection account in full verses making a settlement for less than the entire balance make a difference to my credit score? I guess I'm asking if the notations "settled" or "paid in full" or some other phrase matters.
Bills.com
December 17, 2013
We have not seen any statements from Fair Isaac & Co., the creator of FICO, or from VantageScore whether "paid as agreed," or "paid in full," or some other notation on a settled debt matters to your credit score.

It is possible the wording might matter to a human loan underwriter reading your report. However, we hasten to add we have not seen any lender underwriting rules stating such.
Tony R.
Hackberry, TX  |  December 16, 2013
I paid off several collection accounts. This didn't increase my FICO score. I noticed that VantageScore gives you credit for paying-off old debts. How do I get my mortgage lender to use my VantageScore (650), which is higher than my FICO score (610)?
Bills.com
December 16, 2013
Consumers do not get to choose which credit score lenders use. You mentioned a mortgage. Mortgage lenders use the "FICO classic" scoring model. The consumer credit reporting agencies call FICO classic different names:
  • Equifax Beacon 5.0
  • Experian/Fair Isaac Risk Model V2SM
  • TransUnion FICO Risk Score, Classic 04

Why FICO classic? Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy almost all mortgages today, require loan officers to submit a FICO classic number, and do not allow VantageScore or other credit scores.

Erin D.
Toledo, OH  |  October 02, 2012
My credit score is 580, and I found out an old debt from over five years ago, totalling around $5000, is still showing up as being outstanding. I finally was able to get an official letter from the lawyer firm that garnished my wages until i paid what i had owed in-full. Who do i need to send this letter to, in order to raise my credit score, so that i can finally apply for a home loan??? Also, is my husband's bad credit going to affect me applying for the loan?
Bills.com
October 02, 2012
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, derogatory accounts may appear may appear on your credit report for up to 7 years from the date of first delinquency. Take a look at one of your credit reports by accessing AnnualCreditReport.com and find the date of first delinquency on the account in question. Add 7 years to the date of first delinquency, and that is when the debt will fall off your credit report. Your credit score should show some improvement at that point, assuming you have been paying your other accounts on time.

If the account is showing a debt outstanding, and you paid the debt in full, then dispute the account with each of the consumer credit reporting agencies that report the incorrect account status.

Both spouses do not need to apply for a mortgage. If your income and credit are sufficient to qualify for a loan on your own, your husband's bad credit will not be a barrier. If you need his income to qualify, then it will be a problem. See the Bills.com resource Mortgage When a Spouse Has Bad Credit to learn more.
Heather S.
Lake Tapps, WA  |  July 27, 2012
My credit score is 527. I have $6700 in collections. Most are unpaid medical bills, but $1800 of it is credit card debt (3 closed accounts). I would like to improve my credit score. In what order should I begin paying off this debt? Should I pay credit cards before medical bills, or age of accounts in general? Thank you.
Bills.com
August 02, 2012
Paying off old, delinquent debts does not immediately greatly improve your credit score. The damage to your score that was done when the accounts become delinquent and then went into collections is not undone when the debts are paid. However, it is a positive factor to bring a debt to $0 balance. It does have a limited, good effect on your credit. More importantly, it eliminates the debt leading to a judgment that would further harm your credit and could be enforced by a wage garnishment or bank levy.
Krystle A.
Shenango, PA  |  June 06, 2012
I am contacting collection agencys and trying to get letters as proof that i am settled the account. My score now is 521 and i have these accounts for 5 years now i have one care credit account and a car loan for 47k how much will my score improve when i settle all this old debt. I tryed negotiating money for delete but they said no 3 will post paid in full and 5 will state settled for less amount. I want to buy a house and need a 620 thanks
Bills.com
June 12, 2012
See the Bills.com article Short Sale, Foreclosure & Your Credit Score to learn how long it takes a credit score to recover from certain negative events.
Mary A.
Elkton, MD  |  April 06, 2012
My husband and I had a car repo'd Aug 10. The lender sold the car at auction and sent the balance to a collection agency. We are trying to clean up our credit now. We just got a new loan for a car. I contacted the lender from the repo'd car and they refer me to the collection agency. I called the number for them and it gives some error message and hangs up. I looked up the agency and got two different number for it 1 a toll free and the other a long distant...no biggie free long distance on home and cell phone. Toll free number did not work, the long distance number goes to a voice mail and they never call back. I have left a message a week for 3 weeks. I told the salesman this where we bought our new car and he could not believe it. I have no clue what to do. First I thought "OK, I'll just dispute it." Do I submit two separate dispute letters to each credit company one for me or one for my husband? This is where is gets weird. The lender appears on our credit report but the collection agency does not. The lender keeps sending me to them. What do we do?
Bills.com
April 06, 2012
My guess, note my word choice, is the original creditor sold your collection account to a collection agent. The collection agent is no longer in business, based on the behavior you described. This is good news because you can dispute the debt with the credit reporting agencies (the credit bureaus) and no one at the defunct collection agency will respond to the credit reporting agencies' request for information. Without a response, the credit reporting agencies must, under the FCRA remove the challenged item.

I will assume both of you were joint borrowers on the vehicle loan in question. If so, either one of you can file a dispute with the credit reporting agencies.

Using the instructions at the page I just hyperlinked, file a dispute with each credit reporting agency reporting the repossession.
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Mary A.
Elkton, MD  |  April 06, 2012
What about the fact that the lender is on our credit but the collection agency is not? How will that factor in when submitting the dispute?
Bills.com
April 06, 2012
Excellent point! The fact the collection agent never reported this debt to the credit reporting agencies is further evidence it is out of business or asleep at the switch. Disputing a non-existent derogatory is pointless.

Take these two courses of action:
  • Dispute the debt as reported by the original creditor. You have three first-class stamps to lose, and if the creditor fails to respond, you win.
  • Work on improving your credit score.
Jen L.
Novato, CA  |  April 05, 2012
My boyfriend and I were in the midst of buying a home using his VA loan. Because we are not married we were only running the loan through his credit. We had a preapproval and put an offer in on a house. The home appraised 35,000 under the offer and the sellers wanted to full amount so the deal fell through. We had to reapply for another loan since the other deal falling through closed out the original loan. Upon trying to get a new pre approval letter the second time he was denied. Originally there was only one collection for $89. Once we went for the loan again a new collection had popped up from Dish Network. This is a claim for $1000 because they claim they did not receive back DVR boxes some years ago when we had service with them. It was advised that we pay the dept in order to get the another loan. We have contacted the debt collection company and they offered him an option to make payments. We are prepared to pay the debt but he was reading that making payments might look better. My concern is this possibly prologing us being able to move forward with a loan. What would be the best way to handle this debt? Thank you
Bills.com
April 06, 2012
The faster you can bring the debt to $0 balance the better. Either pay it in full or negotiate a reduced balance payoff.
Melissa Y.
Bakersfield, CA  |  March 30, 2012
My husband and I are hoping to buy a home. I had 2 accounts in collections that I believe to be re-aged. The original debtors are Sears and Sprint and those fell off my credit report some time ago. However the collections agencies that picked up the debts are still showing up on my report and not due to fall off for a year on one and 2 years on the other, that would be to long for them to keep posting correct? I was told to obtain proof of the debt from the original creditor and send it to the collection agencies and demand under FCRA Section 605 that they be removed. However if I contact the original creditor to obtain proof could that possibly restart my debt?
Bills.com
April 05, 2012
The key information to learn is the date of first delinquency for the accounts you mentioned. The date of first delinquency is the starting point for the 7½-year clock we mentioned in the original answer above. It is common for unscrupulous collection agents to report an incorrect, later date of first delinquency to the credit reporting agencies. It is a violation of federal law, the FCRA, to report an incorrect date of first delinquency.

You mentioned sending a letters to the collection agencies demanding they remove the derogatory information that is older than 7½ years. I think that is an excellent idea. Take care when making a reference to the accounts in question. You do not wish to restart the statute of limitations that may have expired on the accounts by reinstating the account. Notice I mentioned "statute of limitations." This is a separate issue from the FCRA 7½-year rule, and people confuse these two often. See the Bills.com article Statutue of Limitations to learn more about this legal issue.

When you write your letter, do not say, "my account" or "my debt" or "the amount I owe" or other similar phrases implying responsibility for the debt. Instead write, "the account you attribute to me" and "account No. abc123" and so on. Avoid the use of "I, me, my" when referring to these accounts. Consult with a lawyer who has consumer law or civil litigation experience if you have a concern about your letters.
Yang V.
Brooklyn Park, MN  |  March 27, 2012
Hi, I have a credit score of 616 AND a student loan of $6000. I really want to buy a house. If I can find the money to pay my whole student loan off all at once, how will it reflect on my credit score? will it be a good idea? Or should I just keep paying the mim of the loan?
Bills.com
March 27, 2012
Just paying off the loan will not increase your credit score. In fact, it may have a negative effect. The main components of your credit score are timely payments, credit utilization, credit mix (different types of loans and credit), the amount of time that accounts have been active, and number of new accounts.

If you have a large variety of accounts, then your credit score may not be affected. If not, then your score may actually drop. Keep making the payments on time. One other factor to consider when taking a new loan is your overall Debt to Income ratio. This will include your student loan. For more information read the Bills.com articles about home purchase and mortgages.
Elizabeth B.
Buford, GA  |  March 18, 2012
I am looking to buy a house but I have 5 collection which totals to $800. My credit score is 610, If I pay it would that lower my credit score?
Bills.com
March 19, 2012
Paying an old collection account can lower your score for a while. The reason for this is that the accounts are given greater weight when there is new information on them. What you should do is speak with a loan officer to see if you would have to pay off the collection accounts in order to qualify. If you do, paying them now is better than waiting to do so, as you can start working to improve your credit score sooner.
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