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Statute of Limitations—Definition and Everything You Need to Know

George Simons | July 21, 2022

The statute of limitations on your debt might be up. Check before acting.


Summary: You can't be sued if your debt is past the statute of limitations, and SoloSuit can help you list this as one of your affirmative defenses in your Answer. Here's everything you need to know.

A statute of limitations is the law that sets the maximum amount of time one party has to seek legal action against another party from the date of the alleged offense. The main goal of the statute of limitations is to protect defendants from unfair prosecution. The law assumes that after a certain time has passed from the date of the alleged offense, relevant evidence regarding the offense may have as well been lost.

So in other words, the statute of limitations on debt is the time period in which a creditor or debt collection agency can sue someone for debt.

The statute of limitations varies from one type of case to another. For example, the statute of limitations on debt collection varies depending on the type of debt and the state with jurisdiction over the case.

Statute of Limitations on different types of debt agreements

The statute of limitations on debt can be anywhere between 2 to 15 years. The statute of limitations is different in each state (check out this guide to find the statute of limitations in your state). Apart from the state of jurisdiction, the nature of the debt can also influence its statute of limitations. Here are a few examples:

Statute of Limitations for written agreements

A written agreement is usually a printed document signed by both parties involved in the agreement. This contract is legally binding.

When two parties have a written agreement over a particular debt, and then one party breaches the agreement, the other party can seek legal action against them. However, the party seeking legal action usually has anywhere between 3 to 15 years to do so. For example, in Delaware, the statute of limitations for most written agreements is usually 3 years. In Ohio, the plaintiff may have up to 15 years to seek civil action against the other party.

Statute of Limitations for open-ended contracts

An open-ended contract is a kind of contract that does not specify the end date but includes the terms of termination. For example, an open-ended contract may be terminated due to fraud or any other contract violation.

The statute of limitation for open-ended agreements (contracts) also varies from state to state. For example, in Alabama, the plaintiff has up to 3 years to file a civil claim against the defendant for breaching the terms of an open-ended contract. On the other hand, in California, the statute of limitations for this kind of contract is up to 4 years.

Statute of Limitations for promissory notes

As the name suggests, a promissory note is a kind of agreement where one party promises to pay a certain amount of money to the other party under specific terms and conditions. The statute of limitations for promissory notes also varies from state to state. For instance, in California, the plaintiff has up to 2 years to file a complaint against the defendant. In neighboring Oregon, the plaintiff has up to six years to seek legal action against the defendant.

Statute of Limitations for oral agreements

An oral contract is the kind of contract that's usually spoken between the parties involved but not written down. This kind of contract is usually the most difficult to prove. However, despite being difficult to prove, the other party can still be held liable if they fail to honor the terms of an oral contract.

States like Texas have the same statute of limitations for verbal and written contracts, usually 4 years. Generally, this contract has a statute of limitations lasting between 3 to 6 years. However, in Louisiana, the plaintiff has up to 10 years to file a complaint against the defendant for written, promissory and oral contracts. The same applies to states like Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Oregon, etc.

When does the clock for the Statute of Limitations on debt start?

The statute of limitations clock usually starts when you fail to make a scheduled payment on a debt account. However, in some states, it begins to count from the date you made your most recent payment.

What restarts the Statute of Limitations clock on debt?

When you owe a creditor or debt collection agency a certain amount of money, you can unknowingly restart the statute of limitations on debt. Here's how:

When you make a payment

Making a payment automatically restarts the statute of limitations clock in most states. This happens even if you make a partial payment.

When creditors or debt collectors realize that the statute of limitations on a particular debt is about to expire, they may try to convince you to make a small payment. Most people agree to make such payments thinking that the creditor or debt collection company will forgive the remaining debt. But, on the contrary, it's a tactic to have the consumer submit a payment, restarting the clock as a result. When that happens, it gives them more time to recover what you supposedly owe.

When you agree to pay

Agreeing to an old debt means you own it. This acknowledgment is enough to restart the clock, authorizing the other party to recover the amount owed. For this reason, do not sign anything the other party asks you to, especially without the involvement of an attorney.

Making a charge

The clock also restarts when you make a charge to a credit card belonging to the debt account.

What to do if sued over a time-barred debt

Creditors and debt collectors can still attempt to recover a debt even if it's time-barred. However, they can't do so legally by filing a lawsuit against you. So when you receive a court Summons and Complaint regarding an old debt, your next steps will determine the fate of the case.

The most important thing to do when sued over a debt, whether or not it is time-barred, is to respond to the court Summons and Complaint.

A Summons is a court order requesting you to appear in court. On the other hand, a Complaint is a document that contains the allegations raised against you in the debt collection lawsuit. It also identifies you as the defendant.

To respond, you'll need to create an Answer document. This document includes your answers to the debt collection lawsuit filed against you. In your Answer document, you can do any of the following:

  • admit that you owe the debt;
  • deny that you owe the debt;
  • admit that you owe only a portion of the debt; or
  • claim that you don't have any knowledge of the debt.

Even if you know that you owe the debt, most attorneys advise their clients to deny as many of the allegations listed in the Complaint as possible. This is because you can't be charged if you deny responsibility of debt in a debt collection lawsuit. Instead, the burden of proof switches back to the plaintiff.

The burden of proof is a term that describes one party's responsibility to prove that their allegations against the other party are valid. When you deny that you owe the debt in question, the plaintiff must prove otherwise.

This legal strategy helps you buy time as you evaluate your options. You can also respond with your affirmative defenses.

What is an affirmative defense?

An affirmative defense is a fact or set of facts other than those alleged by the plaintiff against the defendant that defeats the legal consequences of the defendant's unlawful conduct if proven to be true.

Using the Statute of Limitations as an affirmative defense in a debt collection lawsuit

As mentioned earlier, a debt collector can't sue you over a debt if its statute of limitations has expired. For this reason, debt collection laws allow the defendant to use the statute of limitations as an affirmative defense by listing it in the Answer document.

The Answer is then mailed back to the court that issued the Summons and Complaint.

Once you've discovered that the statute of limitations has expired, you may inform the other party about it in writing. You may also request them to stop contacting you about the same debt unless they want to inform you that they've terminated future collection efforts regarding the same debt.

Avoid making promises or revealing more than you should when writing this letter. The other party will most likely conduct further research on the debt, and if they discover that its statute of limitations has expired, they should stop contacting you as requested.

Be sure to inform them that if they continue to contact you even after receiving your letter, such actions violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The FDCPA protects consumers from being contacted by creditors or debt collectors if the consumer requests them, in writing, to stop.

Key takeaways

The statute of limitations on debt varies from state to state and the type of debt owed. This time limit can be anywhere between 2 to 15 years.

Do not ignore a court Summons or Complaint, even if the statute of limitations has expired. The court will pass a default judgment against you if you do so, giving the plaintiff legal authority to recover the debt.

Lastly, don't make any payments to the debt account if you're not ready to go all the way to settle the debt. Debt collectors and creditors usually trick consumers into restarting the statute of limitations clock, which gives them more time to pursue the debt.

SoloSuit can help you file an Answer in all 50 states.

What is SoloSuit?

SoloSuit makes it easy to respond to a debt collection lawsuit.

How it works: SoloSuit is a step-by-step web-app that asks you all the necessary questions to complete your answer. Upon completion, you can either print the completed forms and mail in the hard copies to the courts or you can pay SoloSuit to file it for you and to have an attorney review the document.

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