Debt collectors have a limited number of years in which they can sue someone to collect. After the time runs out, certain unpaid open-ended consumer debts, such as credit card debt, are considered “time-barred.” You still owe the money, but at some point your old debt becomes uncollectible through the courts.
The statute of limitations for when a debt is time-barred varies from state to state — anywhere from two to 10 years. If you want to check on the law for your state, the do-it-yourself legal website nolo.com has a good guide. Search on the site for “Civil Statutes of Limitations.”
Unscrupulous debt collection companies often try to revive “zombie debt.” It’s called this because collectors may try to scare you into paying when the debt is time-barred.
Recently, a reader asked me about old debt on two credit cards that totaled nearly $6,000. The 50-year-old District resident said he used the cards to make ends meet when his Social Security disability income wasn’t enough.
“The credit cards became an albatross,” he said.
The debt was charged off in 2017, and his credit score dipped to 590 as a result. This is considered a poor score, which would make it difficult to get a loan or one at a favorable rate. The FICO credit score ranges from a low of 300 to a high of 850. Here’s what the reader wanted to know about his zombie debt.
Q: To improve my credit score, what’s the best way to clean up debt that has been charged off?
A: Let me explain first what a charge-off is, because lots of consumers think it means they are in the clear. The lender is charging off the debt as an accounting move to indicate that its value to the creditor is reduced or eliminated and the debt therefore is no longer an asset. A charge-off does not mean you don’t still owe the money.
“Unpaid debts, even if written off and even if outside the statute of limitations, can have a negative impact on credit reports,” said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, founding president of Tzedek DC, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of low-income D.C. residents facing debt-related issues. “Impaired credit can, in turn, harm people’s ability to secure rental housing approval, a loan or even a job.”
Negative information such as this stays on your credit report for seven years. But the further you get away from the date of default, the less impact the old debt has on your credit score. Going forward, the best way to improve your score is to pay your bills on time. You can also try to work out a payment plan or settlement.
Q: If I have enough money to settle for less than the original total, should I reach out and do so?
A: When debts have been written off, it’s often sold for two to four pennies on the dollar to third-party debt-collection firms, Levinson-Waldman points out. As a result, these firms may be willing to settle the debt for a small fraction of the principal.
“For such settlements, it is often best to structure it as a lump sum with no ongoing plan and to avoid concerns about restarting the clock or breaching the payment plan,” he said. “If the reader can’t arrive at a number the creditor will accept, he should just decline to enter an agreement or pay.”
Check your local area for nonprofits such as Tzedek DC that provide free advice and legal representation so you avoid harmful fine-print clauses.
Q: Will simply reaching out to the lender trigger renewed attempts to settle this, which I am not able to do just yet?
A: It’s important to note that it has been several years since the reader said he made any payments on the cards. Neither the credit card lender nor a debt collector has attempted to make him pay.
The statute of limitations for credit card debts in collection in the District is generally three years from the last payment or promise to pay, Levinson-Waldman said.
Sometimes, the best thing is to do nothing. Any action you take could restart the collection process and expose you to legal action.
As much as you may want to honor your promise to pay, if you really don’t have the money to stick to a payment plan or negotiate a cash settlement — and you can’t be sued — just leave the zombie debt be. Better not to wake this beast if doing so might jeopardize your financial stability.
Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.