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Whether you have medical debt, credit card debt or unpaid student loans, getting calls or letters from debt collection companies can be frustrating. But it’s especially frustrating if your debt is several years old. If you have debt on your credit reports or are getting calls from a collection agency, you might wonder how long a debtor can try to collect these debts—and how long it can affect your credit score. Can a debt collector collect after 10 years? 15 years? 20 years?

The simple answer is: It depends. Here’s an overview of the timelines for debt collection and what to do if you’re contacted about an old debt.

Can a Debt Collector Collect After 10 Years?

In most cases, no. However, it depends on when you made the last payment. The statute of limitations for most debts starts when you go into default. If a debt is 10 years old but you were making payments under an agreement with the lender until 3 years ago, the debt is likely still within the statute of limitations and can be pursued by a debt collector.

How Long Can a Debt Collector Pursue an Old Debt?

Each state has a law referred to as a statute of limitations that spells out the time period during which a creditor or collector may sue borrowers to collect debts. In most states, they run between four and six years after the last payment was made on the debt. This means that even a debt that is older than that may still be able to be collected on if you’ve made a payment sometime in the last four to six years.

In some states, a collection agency cannot try to collect at all once a debt is past the statute of limitations. In other states, they cannot sue you, but they may still try to collect the debt, which can include calls and written requests.

Some debt buyers—companies that buy and try to collect very old debts—still go after borrowers and even take them to court. This is because they know that most borrowers who are sued for old debts won’t show up in court, and the judge will issue a default judgment.

Judgments may give collectors additional collection powers, such as access to the money a debtor has in his or her bank account or the ability to garnish wages to collect the judgment. To prevent this, all a borrower has to do is appear in court at the appointed time and explain that they have a time-barred debt. If that is correct, the lawsuit will be dismissed.

It’s important to note that the statute of limitations is not the same as how long the debt appears on your credit report. The timeline for debt to stay on your credit report is 7.5 years, but again, this depends on your activity with the debt. If the debt was sold by the original lender at 6 years, and you made a payment with the new debt buyer, it could restart the clock.

Can a Bill Collector Collect After Seven Years?

Most debts have a statute of limitations that runs between four to six years. However, it’s still possible for a debt to be within the statute of limitations at seven years, depending on the debt, when the last payment was made and where you live. In general, if you owe the debt, the collector can attempt to contact you to get payment but may not be able to pursue a legal case against you.

Can I Be Chased for Debt After 10 Years?

In most cases, the statute of limitations for a debt will have passed after 10 years. This means that a debt collector may still attempt to pursue it, but they can’t typically take legal action against you. If you notify them that the debt is past the statute of limitations and request that they not contact you again, they likely won’t.

What to Do If You Are Contacted About an Old Debt

If you are contacted about an old debt, it doesn’t mean you should automatically pay it. Remember, agreeing to terms and providing a payment can restart the clock on an old debt, and it’s important to be aware of your rights as a consumer. Instead, take the steps below to see if you need to pay the debt and what your options are.

1. Ask the creditor to send you written notice of the debt.

This is required under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act even if you don’t ask, but asking is a good first step. Scammers will say they aren’t allowed to send a notice or will try to email instead, which helps you weed out the illegitimate callers. By keeping the initial phone conversation to a minimum, you may avoid saying or doing something that could hurt you later on with legitimate collectors.

2. Validate the debt.

Once you receive written notice of the debt, you have 30 days to request validation of the debt. Mail your request to the creditor with a certified letter and ask them to validate the debt. You don’t have to give a reason for your request. You can simply say, “I dispute this debt. Please validate it.”

3. Confirm that the debt is within the statute of limitations.

While you’re waiting for the response from the bill collector, contact a consumer law attorney or your state attorney general’s office to confirm the statute of limitations for the debt. Consumer law attorneys who regularly represent consumers in cases against debt collectors often provide a free consultation.

4. Decide on an action.

Once you receive validation of the debt and confirm that it’s outside the statute of limitations, you have three main options.

  • Pay it. If you know you owe the debt and you now can to pay it, you can do so. Make sure you keep written records of the amount due and your payment. Sometimes these old debts get sold to more than one collection agency, and if you get another call about this debt, you want to have proof you have paid it.
  • Settle it. If you know you owe the debt and want to try to make good on it, but you can’t pay the full amount—or if the debt has been inflated by fees— you may want to negotiate to settle it for less than the full amount due. This is tricky, though, because once you start negotiating, you could reset the statute of limitations and end up being sued for the entire debt. If you want to go this route, your best bet is to talk with an attorney first.
  • Send the collector a letter telling them to leave you alone. You have the right to ask a debt collector to stop contacting you. Once you do that, they are only allowed to contact you to tell you if they are taking legal action against you. If you know the debt is outside the statute of limitations, state that in your letter and tell them not to contact you again.

How Long Do Collections Affect My Credit?

According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the length of time that collection accounts may remain on credit reports is seven years and 180 days from the date the consumer first falls behind on the original account. Even if one of these bills remains unpaid, it cannot be reported after that 7.5 years is up.

The date an account was placed for collections doesn’t matter, just the date of the first missed payment. If an account remains on your credit report past this time, you may be able to take steps to have it removed.

The only scenario where an old collection account can affect your credit is if you are sued and the collector gets a judgment against you. That new judgment would have its own seven-year reporting period. You can get your free annual credit reports to see if you’re facing a judgment. You can also see the impact that judgment is having on your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

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