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States Where You Can Go to Jail for Debt

Hannah Locklear | December 22, 2022

Don't go to jail because of debt.

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 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

The debtor's examination is an event where a creditor will order you to come to court. This is after obtaining a judgment and must go through the court. During this time you will need to answer in court questions regarding your finances and why you are not paying the debt. If you do not show up, this can lead to jail time in 30% of U.S states. It is somewhat rare to be sentenced to jail for debt, but it is legal in certain jurisdictions.

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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

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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. 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.)

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