Can You Be Arrested for Debt?

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Updated on Thursday, November 8, 2018

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You’re in significant debt. The collection calls have started coming in, and letters seem to appear in your mailbox every day. Your debt is mounting, and the constant phone calls and letters are starting to make you nervous.

Can I be arrested for my debt? If this question has entered your mind more than once, take a deep breath and relax. Aside from a handful of extenuating circumstances (which we’ll cover below), you cannot be arrested for your debt.

Read on for everything you need to know about whether you can be arrested for debt and what you should do if a lender threatens to arrest you.

Can you be arrested for debt?

In short, the answer is no. You cannot be arrested for the debt you hold, whether it’s credit card debt, a personal loan, a medical bill, student loans, utility bills, a car loan or any other form of debt that is referred to as civil debt. You can be sued for your debt, but you cannot be arrested. It is illegal for lenders and debt collectors to threaten to arrest you for not paying back your debt.

“Debt collectors can’t threaten to arrest someone,” said Barry Coleman, vice president of counseling and education programs for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “They can’t make threats to intimidate people.”

There are a handful of situations, Coleman said, in which threatening to arrest someone can be a legal option. This would apply in rare cases in which the arrest would be related to something tangential to the debt — such as fraudulent activity, identity theft or defying a court order — but not the debt itself.

“We always say: If someone gets an order to appear in court, even if they know they legally owe that debt and they can’t pay it right then and there, show up in court,” Coleman said. “Because if you don’t, then you will face other consequences.”

Also, consumers can be arrested if they cheat on their taxes or don’t pay child support debt, according to Coleman. “Those types of debt are a little bit different,” he said.

What should I do if a lender threatens to arrest me?

A lender threatening to arrest a debtor violates the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), according to John Ulzheimer, founder of The Ulzheimer Group and a credit reporting expert who worked for FICO and Equifax.

“You’re not allowed to use abusive tactics to collect debt,” Ulzheimer said. “And certainly indicating or suggesting to somebody that they can go to jail if they don’t pay [their debts] is illegal.”

If a lender threatens to arrest you, there are a few things you can do. You can do nothing and hope the threats stop, Ulzheimer said. (It is wise to document the threats of arrest, however, in case you need to take future legal action against the lender or debt collector.)

You can also leverage your rights under the FDCPA and file a lawsuit against the debt collector for abusive debt collection practices.

Coleman adds that you can report the lender to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and someone with the bureau will follow up with you about the complaint.

“Both the [CFPB] and the Federal Trade Commission have authority to pursue action if a debt collector is threatening something that they can’t legally do,” Coleman said.

What can happen if I don’t pay back what I owe?

Consequences for not paying back debt vary by state, but there are some federal regulations on unpaid debt.

Although you cannot be arrested for your debt, there are a handful of other things that can happen. “There are a lot of bad things that can happen when you don’t pay your debt,” Ulzheimer said. “Nothing good comes from not paying your obligations, right?”

If you don’t pay back your debt, it will go into default. Once in default, creditors will typically try to collect the debt themselves, Ulzheimer said. Your credit report and score will be negatively affected, and you will likely receive phone calls and letters.

If you still don’t pay back your debt, the lender will likely sell your debt to a third-party collection agency or debt collector. “They will eventually get sick and tired of attempting to collect the debt and they will either sell the debt or consign the debt to a debt collector,” Ulzheimer said. “If the debt is large enough or if the debt collector chooses to, they can file a lawsuit against you.”

If a debt collector files a lawsuit against you, you should show up to court no matter what. If you don’t show up, the collector can get a default judgment against you.

Coleman said one potential repercussion of not paying back one’s debt is court-ordered wage garnishment. That means the debt collector can legally seize a portion of your paycheck before the money hits your bank account.

“Wage garnishment, I think, is probably the biggest repercussion of not paying a debt,” he said. “It is probably the biggest concern for folks that are behind on the debt and aren’t trying to work with that particular creditor or debt collector.”

How to fix your debts

If you’re struggling to pay back your debts, there are a handful of important steps you can take to get on solid financial footing.

1. Don’t ignore your lenders or debt collectors.

Even if you can’t afford to pay back your debts, one of the worst things you can do is avoid your lender or debt collector. Answer the lender or debt collector’s phone calls, and, of course, any court summons you receive.

“Consumers will want to be proactive and work with their creditors and any debt collectors when they owe debt to work out some sort of an arrangement to avoid it escalating and becoming an even bigger situation,” Coleman said.

2. Negotiate with your lenders.

Some consumers might not be aware of this, but you can negotiate your debts with your lenders. Contact your lender and explain your financial situation. Tell it that although you cannot repay the entire debt, you can pay X amount each month. If you have extenuating circumstances, such as the loss of a job, illness or a death in the family, tell the lender.

“If you don’t have the means to pay, just be honest and state that,” Coleman said. “If you can pay a little bit, offer to do that. If the lender says, ‘OK, I’ll accept this payment arrangement,’ just ask that it be in writing so that you have something to back that up.”

3. Seek help from a nonprofit credit counseling agency.

If you’re struggling to repay a significant amount of debt across multiple channels, consider contacting a nonprofit credit counseling agency. Counselors at these agencies can help you come up with a plan for repaying your debt and can negotiate with lenders on your behalf if necessary.

4. Consider using the debt snowball or debt avalanche method for repaying debt.

These are two common strategies consumers use to repay their debt. The debt snowball method involves paying back debts from smallest to largest, while the debt avalanche method involves paying back higher-interest debts first.

5. Consolidate your debt.

If you have multiple debts and are struggling to stay organized, consider taking out a debt consolidation loan (nonprofit credit counselors can help in this area). This involves consolidating all your debts and making one monthly payment that gets distributed among your various creditors. If you have a fair credit score, you may even be able to snag lower interest rates, which could save you money in the long term.

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Although you cannot be arrested for debt, there are myriad consequences that can result from not paying back what you owe. Ignoring your debts or any court-ordered summons will only make your situation worse. Be as proactive as possible to avoid the repercussions of not repaying your debt.

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