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Advice if Creditor is Trying to Collect on a 13 Year Old Debt

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Mark Cappel
UpdatedJun 13, 2024
Key Takeaways:
  • Start by learning the statute of limitations for debt issues in your state.
  • Learn your state's collection laws.
  • Consult with a lawyer if you have specific questions.

Can creditors try to collect a debt that is 13 years old?

Thirteen years ago, I purchased a dinning room set for $1,300 and paid by check. I was married and working, and never really balanced my checking account. Today I received a letter with a copy of my check and they say they failed to cash my check and now want the money. I am now 72 years old and on Social Security, and do not have the money. Do they have a legal claim after 13 years?

I would be surprised if the lender has a legal claim to enforce the purchase agreement you entered into when you bought your dining room set 13 years ago. Every state has a statute of limitations which limits the amount of time during which a creditor can file a lawsuit against a debtor to enforce an unpaid obligation. For example, California law gives creditors four years to sue for the enforcement of a debt; only a couple of states, Ohio and Kentucky, have a statute of limitations longer than 13 years. Therefore, the company trying to collect on this old debt probably has little ability to legally force you to pay the check it failed to cash 13 years ago. Read this resource to learn more about statute of limitations for debt.

Even if this creditor somehow were able to proceed with a lawsuit and obtain a judgment against you for this old debt, it would likely be difficult for the creditor to enforce its judgment. Like most other forms of retirement income, Social Security benefits are generally exempt from garnishment by judgment creditors, so there is little chance that the creditor could force you to pay it from your limited income. Given the age of this debt and your limited income, I think it highly unlikely that this creditor will continue trying to collect this debt. However, if you begin receiving collection calls, you can send a cease and desist letter to the creditor, which should help stop the calls.

You may wish to respond to the letter you received, stating that the statute of limitations for the enforcement of this contract has expired, and that the collector must cease all collection activity. In addition, you may want to detail your financial situation, explaining the fact that in the thirteen years that have passed since this transaction was originally conducted, you have retired and are living on a small social security benefit, and thus are unable to pay even if you were liable for the debt. You may wish to consult with an attorney about this matter and have him/her respond to the collector on your behalf. Given your age and limited income, you may qualify for low-cost or even free legal representation through your local Legal Aid office. Your state or county bar association should be able to advise you of available low-cost legal resources for seniors in your area.

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In all, I think that you have little to worry about in this situation. The debt is almost certainly past the statute of limitations, and even if it were not, your income is likely exempt from garnishment. You should probably reply to the letter and then put this out of your mind, as you will likely never hear from this creditor again. I wish you the best of luck in resolving this claim, and hope that the information I have provided helps you Find. Learn. Save.



Did you know?

If you are struggling with debt, you are not alone. According to the NY Federal Reserve total household debt as of Quarter Q1 2024 was $17.69 trillion. Student loan debt was $1.60 trillion and credit card debt was $1.12 trillion.

According to data gathered by from a sample of credit reports, about 26% of people in the US have some kind of debt in collections. The median debt in collections is $1,739. Student loans and auto loans are common types of debt. Of people holding student debt, approximately 8% had student loans in collections. The national Auto/Retail debt delinquency rate was 4%.

Collection and delinquency rates vary by state. For example, in Missouri, 16% have student loan debt. Of those holding student loan debt, 8% are in default. Auto/retail loan delinquency rate is 5%.

Avoiding collections isn’t always possible. A sudden loss of employment, death in the family, or sickness can lead to financial hardship. Fortunately, there are many ways to deal with debt including an aggressive payment plan, debt consolidation loan, or a negotiated settlement.



LLinda L Sampson, Nov, 2020

I owed money on a credit card I couldnt pay and they went to court and got a judgement and not sure its a lien on my property, but Im refinancing and the lender brought it up and is going to check it out. Last time I heard from them was 2013. Thought the credit cards were unsecured so not sure what to do. Just wondering, what I can do? Thank you.

DDaniel Cohen, Nov, 2020

Linda, credit cards are unsecured (aside from secured credit cards). That means when you defaulted on the debt the creditor couldn't come and take any collateral, as there was no collateral securing the loan. Instead the creditor sued you and got a judgment. Judgments can be collected on by wage garnishment and attaching the judgment-debtor's bank account. A lien is another tool. The lien is technically on you, but it encumbers property you own. The lien prevents you from refinancing, selling, or transfering the title to the home. 

There are not a lot of options. You can pay the lien off from equity, likely needing to structure it so the funds go straight from the new lender to your judgment-creditor. Otherwise the creditor will not release the lien. 

If the creditor is not aware of the application to refinance, perhaps you can negotiate with them, as it has been a long time they have gone without collecting. Maybe they would take 35% of what you owe, if you approach them strategically. You would have to do this before the loan. Once they know you want to pull out equity, they will want their full share, knowing they can impede your goal if you don't pay them.

I don't know the exact words to use. Assuming you can get the money together, you could say that you have always paid your debts, it has been a sore spot that you were unable to pay them, and you have come into enough money to try and clear the debt. They can say no, but if they are willing to settle, get the agreement in writing that the lump sum you give them will clear out the debt entirely, bringing it to $0, and closes the matter.

Good luck. Please report back on how things go for you.

LLisa, Aug, 2012
In my younger days, I got into credit card debt. This was about 15 years ago. I had a couple of credit cards, all with fairly low limits. One of the debts I was forced to settle through a judgement. The other two I walked away from and haven't heard a thing on for over a decade. I also moved about a decade ago to another state. Recently my mother died. I'm selling her house and the title agency discovered a judgement against me originating in 2000. The plaintiff refiled docket in 2005 and again in 2010. I knew nothing about this. It's not showing on my credit report and in fact I now have really good credit. The title agency will not close until I get the creditor to settle or release this debt. But I'm really concerned about opening this can of worms. As of the 2010 judgement, I owe over $11,000 - on what was likely originally under $1,000. And when I called the creditor, they told me the case had been closed and referred me to another office to contact. I do not know what to do. Escrow is set to close in a week and a half. But I do not want this suddenly ruining my credit or costing me an astronomical amount. I was never notified about this judgement or served with a lawsuit. I'm even wondering if this could be the one judgement I did know about and that I already settled. I know that's not likely but the principal amount sounds like what I had to pay. Sadly I no longer have the records for that case (2003) and I'm not sure how to find them. Or what to do.
BBill, Aug, 2012
You mentioned a creditor placed a lien on property titled in your mother's name for a judgment filed against you. • Was your mother a co-signer on the contract that lead to this debt? • Was your name on the property's title?

If the answer to both of these questions is "no," then the creditor has no legal claim to your mother's property. The court erred when it allowed the judgment-creditor to place a lien on her property. Consult with a lawyer who has property law experience in your state to discuss filing a motion to have the lien removed from the title.

If your mother was a co-signer, or your name is on the house's title, then you have an entirely different situation. If either of these is the case, you need to attack the plaintiff's failure to give you adequate notice of the lawsuit. Consult with a lawyer to discuss filing a motion to vacate the judgment. If this motion is granted, then you can file a motion to have the lien lifted from the property.

Alternatively, hire a lawyer to contact the judgment-creditor to negotiate a lump-sum settlement that removes the lien.

BBill, Jun, 2009
First, you will need to check on your credit report to see if this debt is being reported, and if it is, then what was the last payment date of that account, who was the original creditor etc. Depending on the state that you reside in, the statute of limitations (SOL) on this debt might have expired, meaning you need not pay this debt. The statutes vary from state to state, you can check for your state's statute of limitations for debt. Even if the SOL has expired, this does not stop the attorney from trying to sue you, but in case they do, and the case goes to court, all you have to do is inform that judge that the SOL has expired and the case will easily be dismissed.
kkeala, May, 2009
I received a collections letter last year for a debt I cannot remember so I sent them a certified letter requesting debt validation. I received the return receipt signed and dated back in October of last year but nothing else. It is now almost 8 months later and yesterday, I receive a letter from a local collections attorney regarding my debt validation and that this collection agency has turned my debt over to him. Now what do I do? Is this legal? In the attorney's letter it shows who the original debt was from, I don't remember when this debt made. Help
BBill, Feb, 2009
Sometimes when creditors sell accounts to collection agencies, the name on the account might change, which could be what happened on this account. Check to see if this account appears on your credit report. Write a letter to the company that sent you the notice asking for a validation of the debt. If afterwards, you learn the statute of limitations has run out on this debt, you are not obligated to pay, if the creditor files a lawsuit against you. You will probably need to explain this to the agency that sent you this letter as well.
ssebriana, Feb, 2009
I received a letter form the county in which i live. In this letter, it states that I have a balance on an account of 13 years ago. I have tried to get someone to tell me what this is for, It states Human Services, which I have never applied for in my whole life. Am I obligated to pay?