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What is the Statute of Limitations?

Statute of Limitations

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Daniel Cohen
UpdatedMay 22, 2024
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    8 min read
Key Takeaways:
  • Analyzing which statute of limitations applies is more difficult than it first appears.
  • Look to the contract you signed to see if it has a choice of laws clause.
  • Understand what actions you take can extend the SOL beyond the standard time.

How to Tell Which Statute of Limitations Applies to Your Situation

This article helps Bills.com readers analyze their statute of limitations questions. Statutes of limitations seem straight forward at first glance, but can become tricky because each state legislature created their own rules for handling time limits on actions.

What Is a Statute of Limitation?

All jurisdictions have a body of statutes in their codes of law called limitations of actions, periods of prescription, and prescriptive periods, commonly referred to as the statutes of limitations. The idea behind these laws is we as a society decided we do not want old debts hanging around forever — we want people and businesses to move on with their lives without worrying about being sued. States and the federal government set statutes of limitations for civil and criminal actions. Each state legislature wrote dozens of statutes of limitation.

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The length of time an original creditor or collection agent has to file a lawsuit depends on the following:

  • Consumer’s state of residence
  • Type of debt
  • Contract with the lender (more about contracts below)

For example, many states allow more time for original creditors and collection agents to file suit to collect on closed-ended consumer loans, such as vehicle loans, than on credit card debts or spoken contracts. Most states give credit card issuers 3 to 4 years to file suit after default, but some states allow as many as 10 years. See the Bills.com page collection laws for every state in the US.

Statue of Limitations by State

Here’s a page containing a list of statute of limitations by state. If an original creditor or collection agent 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) if the consumer/defendant raises the statute of limitations defense.

The defendant 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. Courts will not raise the statute of limitations defense on behalf of the consumer. Therefore, you must raise the statute of defense if it is available to you. Although the periods vary from state to state, there is only one (Ohio) that is longer than 10 years.

Two States with Separate Rules

Wisconsin and Mississippi outlaw lawsuits against consumers in cases where those state statutes of limitation have passed. Wisconsin and Mississippi are the only exceptions to the “lawsuits are allowed for original creditors even if the statute of limitations expired” rule.

What a Statute of Limitation is Not

The passing of the statute of limitation does not mean an original creditor cannot file a lawsuit against a consumer in most states. The passing does not mean the debt is canceled or extinguished or must be removed from a consumer’s credit report. It does not prevent an original creditor or collection agent from contacting the consumer to collect the debt.

A statute of limitations, in most states, is just a tool for lawyers to use as a defense in a lawsuit. It is an affirmative defense the defendant must raise in a timely manner before the conclusion of the trial.

FDCPA Violations and SOL

Most courts find it is a violation of the FDCPA for a collection agent to pursue a debt collection lawsuit against a consumer after the statute of limitation expired (Kimber v. Federal Financial Corp. 668 F.Supp. 1480 (1987)). Some collection agents still sue in hopes the consumer will not know this rule.

Choice of Laws and Tolling

The statute of limitations for a debt can be set in a contract with a choice of laws clause. A credit card issuer can write a clause that says something to the effect of, “Our headquarters may be in New York, and you may reside in Ohio, but if a dispute arises from this contract, we agree to use the laws of Delaware.” Most judges despise choice of laws clauses, and will make efforts to find reasons to ignore them in favor of their own state laws. However, the US Supreme Court ruled that choice of laws clauses in consumer contracts conform to the Constitution. Therefore, any statute of limitations analysis should include a review of the contract the consumer signed.

Tolling can also affect a debt’s statute of limitations. Tolling refers to a time-out on the running clock of the statute of limitations. In some jurisdictions, a debtor can take an action that is viewed as preventing reasonable efforts by the creditor to collect on the debt. For example, if a debtor leaves the country for a few years, the court may decide that because the creditor did not have a fair chance to collect, the statute of limitations was not running during the time the debtor was abroad. Tolling rules vary from state to state.

Resetting a Statute of Limitations

For debt, the statute of limitations starts either when the debtor last made a payment, or when the payment was due. Once the statute of limitations on a debt is reached, the creditor may use the court system to collect the debt. However, if the debtor/defendant raises the affirmative defense of statute of limitations in a timely manner, the court must dismiss the case. A court will not raise the statute of limitations defense on its own — the court is a neutral referee — the defendant must raise this defense.

A defendant can reset a statute of limitations clock back to zero two ways:

  1. Make a voluntary payment
  2. Acknowledge the debt

Under common law, the acknowledgment must be in writing and convey the idea the consumer promises to pay the debt. Not surprisingly, many state legislatures wrote their own version of this rule. Arizona, Florida, New York, and Oregon are four such states one can find with acknowledgment of barred action rules.

Statute of Limitations on Credit Card Debt

States wrote statutes of limitations laws before the invention of credit cards. Some state courts throw credit card debt in the written contracts bin. Others consider credit cards open accounts, which were written with bar tabs and feed store accounts in mind that are customarily settled at the end of the month. Other state courts lump credit cards with spoken/verbal contracts. Each of these often have different statutes of limitation.

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Charge Off and Statute of Limitations

Some consumers confuse charge-off and statutes of limitations. The two concepts have no relationship to each other. Charge off is an accounting term used by creditors when they move a delinquent account from its accounts receivable ledger to the bad-debt line on the general ledger. This usually occurs between 180 and 240 days from the date of the last payment. The fact an account is charged-off does not mean the debt may not be collected later. The charge-off date does not correspond to the statute of limitations on collecting a debt.

Analyzing a Statute of Limitations Issue

There are at least five key issues to a statute of limitations question:

  1. Did the parties agree to a choice of laws in their contract? Review the contract, and look for a “choice of laws” clause in the contract. If the contract states which state laws the parties agree to use if a dispute arises from the contract, then there is the answer to your question. However, although choice of laws clauses are well litigated, some judges take pains to find reasons to ignore a choice of laws clause.
  2. What are the statutes of limitations for the plaintiff’s state? The defendant’s? Assuming the litigants reside in different states, the statutes of limitations for each state may be different.
  3. How does each state’s supreme court look at statutes of limitations conflicts with sister states? Consult with a lawyer in your state who has consumer law experience to learn how your state resolves conflicts-of-laws issues.
  4. Is the plaintiff filing the case in its home state, or in the defendant’s state of residence? And if it is filing the case in the defendant’s state, is it asking the court to use a different state’s statute of limitations?
  5. Who is the plaintiff? If the party filing the lawsuit is the original creditor, then the court will give a great deal of weight to the choice-of-laws clause in the contract. If the plaintiff is a collection agent, under the FDCPA, collection agents for a credit card or similar debt must file a lawsuit either in a court where the consumer lives, or the judicial district where the consumer signed the contract (15 USC § 1692i). Judges like to use familiar laws and will bend over backwards to use their state’s statute of limitations. However, if the plaintiff’s lawyer creates a convincing argument that another state’s statute of limitations is more appropriate, the judge may agree.

Statute of limitations questions seem straight forward: “Which statute of limitations applies to me?” However, answering this question is tricky because a small change in facts can have a huge impact on finding the correct answer. If the facts are simple — for example, both parties reside in the same state and agree to use that state’s rules — the answer is simple. However, you need a deeper analysis if your facts are complex. Consult with a lawyer in your state who has consumer law or civil litigation experience if your facts are complicated.

Did you know?

Mortgages, credit cards, student loans, personal loans, and auto loans are common types of debts. According to the NY Federal Reserve total household debt as of Q4 2023 was $17.503 trillion. Housing debt totaled $12.612 trillion and non-housing debt was $4.891 trillion.

According to data gathered by Urban.org 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%.

The amount of debt and debt in collections vary by state. For example, in Georgia, 34% have any kind of debt in collections and the median debt in collections is $1854. Medical debt is common and 17% have that in collections. The median medical debt in collections is $855.

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.

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10 Comments

KKathie Blackett, Nov, 2022
Can a debt collector get any money from me if I only have social security deposited in my bank
KKathie Blackett, Nov, 2022
I only get social security, deposited in my bank. Nothing else, can a credit card debt collector for 1000 dollars get any money
TTed, Nov, 2022
Hello Kathie, Please do not take my answer to be legal advice, as I am not an attorney and only attorneys can offer legal advice.  Most states are going to have their rules about what can and can't happen regarding the collection of debt. I would review your rules based on your current residence.
SSam, Oct, 2022
I'm struggling with a situation that seem to surprise most people who hear about if but yet tons of people are being sued and lose against the plaintiff and no one has found a loophole that could help. Long story short i was summoned regarding unpaid student loans from 1999-2003. These loans were taken from the government of Sweden (CSN) to study in the United States. Due to life not going as planned after graduation in 2003 I never had a good paying job nor did I ever end up using my college degree. I have tax reports to support this information as well until this very day. I ended up getting married and staying and have been a US citizen since 2009. I forgot all about those student loans as it's been over 20 years and I thought the statute of limitations was long past and I was never able to repay due to not making much money and hardship. Now, out of nowhere, I am dealing with a debt collection lawsuit with added interest from all these years, according to the plaintiff it is over $87k. The plaintiff being the Kingdom of Sweden has hired local attorneys in California to handle these cases and they are suing people in similar situations left and right, and winning. Most these people being sued are successful and settle to pay but my situation is different so I'm struggling to plead my case fairly, as the plaintiffs attorneys do not care about anything except getting paid. The plaintiff insist on swedish law to be applied to these cases through choice of law BUT yet the plaintiff refuses to allow the case back to Sweden where I feel I would have a better chance to plead my case due to access to a degense familiar with that country's law. I have lived in the United since 1999 and not familiar with swedish law, not was I aware that in Sweden, one they could change a contract and law and retroactively apply it to old contracts/agreements/loans. That is what has happened here. In 2011 they changed the statute of limitations from 10 years to 25 years for repayment of student loans and despite my student loans being from 99-03 they insist it applies to my loan. This makes no sense whatsoever. I didn't even know such law could ever be a possibility nor did I ever agree to it, so it does not make sense how they can make CA courts abide by this "strange law". It has been impossible to find a local attorney with knowledge in this field since it requires someone who has extensive knowledge in both Swedish law and US law- which the plaintiffs attorneys have. There is so much unfairness and things that don't make sense in these cases and yet no one who can help. I feel laws are being generalized and applied in cases like this, despite it not being fair and reasonable. I have great credit and have never paid anything late in my life, with the exception of this mistake from over 20 years ago, that is now haunting me out of nowhere and literally making my life miserable. Any advice or guidance you can give? I have dual citizenship and I feel neither of the citizenships are able to give me a fair chance or help.
BBruce Keane, Oct, 2022
Can my Power company I have make me pay a bill from 2003 it's been 20 years. I don't recall owing this. I have had this power company for all these years now there saying that they just found this in my records. Do I have to pay or after 20 years I feel I shouldn't have to be responsible for this. Thank you.
TTed, Oct, 2022
Hello Bruce, What is your residence? Alot of factors will determine on where you currently live.
PPatti Fitzgerald, Sep, 2022
I have a question about tolling. I was jujst contacted by a midigator telling me I was being taken to court if I dont settle a credit card from 2008. This debt is not on my credit report and hasnt been. I just purchase a new home. What is tolling and is this ligitimate? I truly do not recall this debt. I live in Ilinois and know the statute is 7 years. This rep told me that after 2020 the debt was considered non collectable and that a tolling agreement makes it possible for them to sue me and put a lean on my home. When I asked for proff of debt she said they dont have that. Any advice ?
TTed, Sep, 2022
Hello Pattie, thank you for sharing today. Please, do not take my answer to be legal advice as I am not an attorney. Only attorneys can offer legal advice. Tolling, refers to the suspension of a statute of limitations. It can be accomplished through an agreement between the parties of court order. Have you ever left the country? When a party is not adequately notified of the lawsuit, Tolling can be ordered from the court so that the creditor can collect at a later time. Sometimes military folks are gone for several years at a time and may miss out on receiving a summons if issued. I am wondering did you have this conversation before 2020? Why bring it up now? This article helped me to understand what tolling is. I hope it brings more clarity too. https://www.contractscounsel.com/t/us/tolling-agreement Regards, Josh