I was recently served civil suit papers for an old unsecured debt I cannot afford to pay. What should I do?
Although I will provide general information that will help you understand how to resolve this matter, I urge you to consult with an attorney in your state who has experience with consumer rights issues. I will explain more about a summons and complaint in just a moment.
You mentioned this concerns an "old" debt, so I will discuss a legal concept called "statute of limitations." All states have a body of statutes in their codes of law called, "Limitations of Actions," commonly referred to as the statutes of limitations. The idea behind these laws is that we as a society have decided that we don’t want old debts hanging around forever — we want people and businesses to be able to move on with their lives without worrying about being sued.
The length of time a creditor has to sue you depends on your state of residence and the type of debt. For example, many states allow longer for creditors to file suit to collect on closed-ended consumer loans than on credit card debts. Most states give credit card issuers three to four years to file suit after default, but some states allow as many as 10 years.
Check out the Bills.com Collection Laws and Statute of Limitations page to see a list of by state. If a creditor files a lawsuit after the allowed time, the court will usually throw the case out and not allow the creditor to file suit again (called dismissed with prejudice).
However, you must raise the issue of expired statute of limitations in a written response to the lawsuit, or else the court will not know that the statute of limitations has expired. The judge will not make the statute of limitations for you.
The periods vary from state to state. See the Bills.com article Which Statute of Limitations Applies to Your Situation if you have a question about which state statute of limitations the court may follow.
Remember: The clock running out on a statute of limitations does not mean a creditor may not sue you (in most states). It means if a lawsuit is filed you should have an strong defense against the lawsuit if you raise the defense.
You must take action by either going to court or hiring an attorney to do so. Also, keep in mind that the passage of the SOL does not prevent a creditor from calling you to collect on the debt; it simply provides you a defense in court if the creditor files suit.
The civil suit papers you refer to in your question are frequently called a Summons and Complaint. The summons, which should be the first page of the documents you received from the court, should state the time period in which you have to file a response to the complaint with your local courts. If you decide that you would like to respond to the complaint, the court clerk should be able to provide you with the necessary forms.
If you do not have a statute of limitations defense, I recommend you attempt to resolve this debt with the creditor or the creditor’s attorney before they take any further collection action. If you obtain a fairly sizable portion of the balance, the creditor may be willing to settle the debt.
For example, if you can offer 40% or 50% of the outstanding balance in a lump-sum payment, the creditor may be willing to forgive the remaining balance and dismiss the court case. Contact the creditor’s attorney to discuss settlement of the debt.
If you don't have a lump sum to settle the debt, the creditor may be willing to accept monthly payments to stop further collection activity, but will probably not dismiss the case against you. The creditor will want to obtain a judgment against you just in case you do not make your scheduled monthly payments. Again, contact the creditor’s attorney to discuss possible repayment plans.
If you do not resolve this matter, the creditor will likely obtain a judgment and proceed to attempt to collect on the judgment. Depending on the state you live in, judgment execution could include wage garnishment, bank levies, and property liens, and other actions. (See Collections Advice for more information about collections.)
I encourage you to consult with an attorney to discuss the implications of a judgment against you, and what is the best course of action to resolve the account. Even if you think you have a statute of limitations defense, your best course of action is to seek representation. (See How to Answer a Summons & Complaint for general information.)
If you cannot afford an attorney, contact your country bar association, and ask for information on reaching the organization in your area that provides legal aid to low- and no-income people.
Make an appointment with that organization, and bring all of the documentation you have regarding the debt and the summons and complaint to that meeting. If you think you have a statute of limitations defense, mention that to the attorney or paralegal in your meeting. Make a plan of action with the attorney or paralegal, and be sure to follow through with the plan.
For more information about debt, and for debt help resources, I encourage you to visit the Bills.com debt help page.
I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.