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States Where You Can Go to Jail for Debt

Hannah Locklear | December 19, 2023

Hannah Locklear
Editor at SoloSuit
Hannah Locklear, BA

Hannah Locklear is SoloSuit’s Marketing and Impact Manager. With an educational background in Linguistics, Spanish, and International Development from Brigham Young University, Hannah has also worked as a legal support specialist for several years.

Fact-checked by George Simons, JD/MBA

George Simons
Co-Founder of SoloSuit
George Simons, JD/MBA

George Simons is the co-founder and CEO of SoloSuit. He has helped Americans protect over $1 billion from predatory debt lawsuits. George graduated from BYU Law school in 2020 with a JD/MBA. In his spare time, George likes to cook, because he likes to eat.

Summary: Although debt can be the underlying cause that you are being sentenced to jail time, the real reason someone might be sent to jail in connection with a debt is 1) they did not show up for a court date, and 2) they failed to obey a court order to make payments on a debt.

One way that debt collectors violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is by threatening jail time. This is illegal because you cannot go to jail for owing a debt, no matter what state you live in.

Although going to jail for debt was once a common occurrence, debtors prisons have been banned in the US since 1833. Despite this, there are some states where you may have to face jail time because of a debt-related misconduct.

In this article, we’ll address the following question: can you go to jail for a debt? The answer may surprise you.

Can you go to jail for debt?

The short answer is no, you cannot go to jail for owing a debt. However, you may have to serve jail time if you are guilty of contempt of court in connection with a debt lawsuit case.

Contempt of court is disobeying a court order. Below are the steps to being arrested for a debt in this sense:

  • Step 1: You don't pay your bill
  • Step 2: The creditor or debt collector sues you
  • Step 3: You fail to show up at court
  • Step 4: The court orders you to make a payment or show up for a hearing
  • Step 5: You do not comply with the court order
  • Step 6: You can go to jail for failure to comply with the court order

Although the debt is the underlying cause that you are being sentenced to jail time, you are actually going to jail for one of two reasons:

  1. You do not show up for a court date.
  2. You fail to make payments as ordered by a judge.

For example, if you fail to pay court-ordered child support, it can lead to a court judgment with a penalty of mandatory jail time. Similarly, if you owe taxes and haven't paid them, this is considered tax fraud. Both of these circumstances can result in going to jail.

So, like we said, the only reason you might be sent to jail in connection with a debt is if you disobeyed a court order involving that debt—whether that’s showing up in court or paying the debt off according to a judge’s order.

Keep reading to learn how to avoid going to jail because of a debt.

Avoid going to jail because of a debt.

Don't willfully violate court orders

One main reason you can go to jail for debt is for willfully violating a court order. When it comes to debt, this might include your child's other parent suing you for child support payments or a debt collector suing you for unpaid debt.

In some states, you may be allowed to make periodic payments on a debt. This means that you can pay a portion of your debt and then pledge to continue those payments. If you choose to do this arrangement you will most likely avoid going to jail. Jail is the last resort in an attempt to force you to make the payments. If you continue to refuse these payments, you may see yourself looking at jail time in a debt jail state.

Don't refuse to pay taxes

Income tax is considered a debt until paid, and not paying income taxes is a serious crime. If you are prosecuted for refusing to pay income taxes (and you are convicted) then you have a chance to go to jail.

Don't skip your debt’s exam

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in more than 30 states, judges have the authority to issue arrest warrants for failure to appear at post-judgment proceedings or for failure to provide information about finances.

These proceedings often include judgment debtor examinations, where defendants must answer questions about their financial situation. If a debtor does not appear in court for the examination, a civil warrant for their arrest can be issued.

The arrest and jailing of debtors, often for relatively small amounts, can lead to significant personal and financial consequences

Use SoloSuit to respond to debt collectors and avoid jail time.

These are the states where you can go to jail for debt

Laws vary from state to state, but in general, you can be sent to jail for contempt of court in connection with a debt in the following states:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

In most states, you can go to jail for failure to pay debt such as credit card and hospital fees under a warrant of failure to comply with a court order, as we’ve mentioned before. In this case, the court can issue a warrant for your arrest, and then you will need to pay a bond to get out of jail. This bond is typically the same amount that you originally owed to the creditor.

Having said that, there are six states where you cannot go to jail for a debt of any kind, regardless of whether or not you are found guilty of contempt of court for not paying it.

These six states include:

  • Alabama
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

Satisfy court requirements by filing a response with SoloSuit.

Examples of going to jail for debt

Of the states listed above that can imprison someone for contempt in connection with a debt, there are several that have specific state laws that leave consumers at a serious disadvantage.

For example, lenders, creditors and debt collectors target low-income borrowers in Utah small claims courts, where if they fail to attend a hearing, they can be arrested. After arrest, these predatory lenders have the right to collect the bail money of those who are found guilty of contempt of court.

Utah Code Section 78B-6-311 states:

“If an actual loss or injury to a party in an action or special proceeding is caused by the contempt, the court, in lieu of or in addition to the fine or imprisonment imposed for the contempt, may order the person proceeded against to pay the party aggrieved a sum of money sufficient to indemnify [him] and [to] satisfy [his] the aggrieved party's costs and expenses. The court may order that any bail posted by the person proceeded against be used to satisfy all or part of the money ordered to be paid to the aggrieved party.”

This law gives payday lenders and high-interest creditors the upperhand, because it means they can easily sue people who don’t know much about the legal system and lack easy access to legal resources in the hopes that they will skip out on court hearings and be sent to jail. Then, this law explicitly states that they can take the money used to bail these borrowers out of jail.

Another example can be found in Kansas, where consumers are frequently required to serve jail time for failing to attend hearings for medical debt.

There is no federal law that requires judges to sentence people to jail time for contempt. Each judge gets to determine, on their own, if someone is guilty of contempt. To make matters worse, Kansas does not require judges to have a law degree or any official legal training, and many states do not require low-level judges to have a degree.

You can imagine the power imbalance that could result from this type of system, where low-income, vulnerable consumers are targeted by medical debt collectors who are well-versed in the game of debt.

As a result, there are dozens of Kansas citizens who are sent to jail for failing to appear at their debt exams in court each year.

While many laws seem to favor creditors, lenders, and collectors, there are also federal laws in place to protect consumers from unfair debt collection methods. One such law is the FDCPA.

The FDCPA protects you from debt collection threats

Debt collectors are known to use intimidation tactics to push people to pay off a debt. However, the FDCPA protects consumers, like you, from abusive, threatening, and unfair debt collection practices.

For example, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act §807(4) states:

“The representation or implication that nonpayment of any debt will result in the arrest or imprisonment of any person or the seizure, garnishment, attachment, or sale of any property or wages of any person unless such action is lawful and the debt collector or creditor intends to take such action.”

This means that debt collectors cannot threaten you with arrest or imprisonment for owing a debt. Below are some other actions prohibited by the FDCPA:

  • Debt collectors cannot call you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.
  • Debt collectors cannot use vulgar, intimidating, or threatening language to entice you to pay a debt.
  • Debt collectors cannot call you repeatedly with intent to annoy, abuse, or harass.
  • Debt collectors cannot call you at work.
  • Debt collectors cannot misrepresent the debt amount.
  • Debt collectors cannot pretend to be government officials or law enforcement officers.
  • Debt collectors cannot discuss your debt with your coworkers, friends, or family members.

Stand up for your rights in a debt lawsuit and win.

Protect yourself from going to jail over a debt

If you are unable to pay a debt and you receive a Summons, you need to know your rights. Debt collectors and creditors are not allowed to threaten you with jail time, because they cannot legally enforce that. Only a judge can sentence you to jail.

Debt collectors and creditors may also not harass you, call you at odd hours of the day, nor discuss details about your debt with anyone other than your lawyer. Legally, you have a right to be treated fairly by debt collectors.

If you do get a notice that a lender, creditor, or debt collection agency has sued you, then the first step you must take is to respond. This forces the debt collector to prove their claims, and if they can’t, the case will likely be dismissed.

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If you are summoned to court, go to the hearing. If you’ve been ordered to pay off a debt connected to taxes or child support, do not disobey the court order. If you comply with all court requests, then you will not go to jail.

Overall, there are many options and steps you can take. Although legal in some states, going to jail for debt is not common and can be avoided. SoloSuit can help you respond to a debt lawsuit and beat debt collectors at their own game. Check out this video to learn more:

What is SoloSuit?

SoloSuit makes it easy to fight debt collectors.

You can use SoloSuit to respond to a debt lawsuit, to send letters to collectors, and even to settle a debt.

SoloSuit's Answer service is a step-by-step web-app that asks you all the necessary questions to complete your Answer. Upon completion, we'll have an attorney review your document and we'll file it for you.

Settle your debt before going to court

You might consider settling a debt if you know you owe it, and you have enough to pay some of it off. SoloSettle, powered by SoloSuit, can help you send a settlement offer and pay off your debt, which could potentially save you hundreds (even thousands) of dollars.

Some creditors or debt collectors are willing to work with you. They might even offer a financial hardship program that allows you to pay off the debt in increments over a set period of time.

Either way, settling the debt is better than ignoring court orders and hearings. It enables you to save money and reset financially.

>>Read the FastCompany article: Debt Lawsuits Are Complicated: This Website Makes Them Simpler To Navigate

>>Read the NPR story on SoloSuit. (We can help you in all 50 states.)

How to Answer a Summons for debt collection in all 50 states

Here's a list of guides on how to respond to a debt collection lawsuit in each state:

The Ultimate 50 State Guide

Guides on how to resolve debt with every debt collector

Are you being sued by a debt collector? We’re making guides on how to resolve debt with each one.

Resolve your debt with your creditor

Some creditors, banks, and lenders have an internal collections department. If they come after you for a debt, Solosuit can still help you respond and resolve the debt. Here’s a list of guides on how to resolve debt with different creditors.

Settle your medical debt

Having a health challenge is stressful, but dealing medical debt on top of it is overwhelming. Here are some resources on how to manage medical debt.

Guides on arbitration

If the thought of going to court stresses you out, you’re not alone. Many Americans who are sued for credit card debt utilize a Motion to Compel Arbitration to push their case out of court and into arbitration.

Below are some resources on how to use an arbitration clause to your advantage and win a debt lawsuit.

Stop calls from debt collectors

Do you keep getting calls from an unknown number, only to realize that it’s a debt collector on the other line? If you’ve been called by any of the following numbers, chances are you have collectors coming after you, and we’ll tell you how to stop them.

Federal debt collection laws can protect you

Knowing your rights makes it easier to stand up for your rights. Below, we’ve compiled all our articles on federal debt collection laws that protect you from unfair practices.

Get debt relief in your state

We’ve created a specialized guide on how to find debt relief in all 50 states, complete with steps to take to find relief, state-specific resources, and more.

Debt collection laws in all 50 states

Debt collection laws vary by state, so we have compiled a guide to each state’s debt collection laws to make it easier for you to stand up for your rights—no matter where you live.

Statute of limitations on debt state guides

Like all debt collection laws, the statute of limitations on debt varies by state. So, we wrote a guide on each state’s statutes. Check it out below.

Statute of Limitations on Debt Collection by State (Best Guide)

Check the status of your court case

Don’t have time to go to your local courthouse to check the status of your case? We’ve created a guide on how to check the status of your case in every state, complete with online search tools and court directories.

How to stop wage garnishment in your state

Forgot to respond to your debt lawsuit? The judge may have ordered a default judgment against you, and with a default judgment, debt collectors can garnish your wages. Here are our guides on how to stop wage garnishment in all 50 states.

How to settle a debt in your state

Debt settlement is one of the most effective ways to resolve a debt and save money. We’ve created a guide on how to settle your debt in all 50 states. Find out how to settle in your state with a simple click and explore other debt settlement resources below.

How to settle with every debt collector

Not sure how to negotiate a debt settlement with a debt collector? We are creating guides to help you know how to start the settlement conversation and increase your chances of coming to an agreement with every debt collector.

Other debt settlement resources

Personal loan and debt relief reviews

We give a factual review of the following debt consolidation, debt settlement, and loan organizations and companies to help you make an informed decision before you take on a debt.

Civil law legal definitions

You can represent yourself in court. Save yourself the time and cost of finding an attorney, and use the following resources to understand legal definitions better and how they may apply to your case.

Get answers to these FAQs on debt collection

How-to debt guides

Learn more with these additional debt resources

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