Monday, May 07, 2007

Resetting myths about resetting debt statutes of limitations

I've been a very remiss blogger lately, and the culprit is, as usual, travel. San Francisco this week, Vegas last, and a crunching work deadline on a feature piece in the midst -- I'm behind on everything, oy. But! The end of the insanity is in sight! And I have lots of financial thoughts scampering around in my head.

Starting with an update on the "repairing your financial sins" series about rebuilding damaged credit. The common word of caution to people thinking of repaying or resuming communication about old debts is "proceed with caution," because doing so can reportedly "reset" and restart the clock on the statute of limitations. Regular reader Karawynn linked in comments to a Consumerist article saying that's a myth, and that the statute of limitations runs from the date payment initially became delinquent, no matter what happens later. Their sources: a nonbinding opinion from the FTC ("because the commencement of the seven year period is now described with some precision by the statute, it is our opinion that none of the subsequent events you listed -- sale of the charged off account by the creditor, or a payment on or dispute about the account by the consumer -- changes the allowable period for a [credit reporting agency] to report a chargeoff") and a direct comment from a TransUnion spokesman, who said (paraphrased) 'paying the account after a delinquency has been reported by a credit grantor will not have the impact of "resetting" the item.'

However -- these comments relate only to what can legally happen on your credit report, not a) what can actually happen (in practice, unscrupulous debt collectors have been caught running all kinds of skeevy stuff up the flagpole to see what flies) and b) what payments do to reset the debt legally. By reinitiating activity on an old debt, you may bump it back into the active column and restart the statue of limitations for the debt's legal expiration (the point at which the creditor no longer has any legal right to pursue you for payment).

The key point to bear in mind is that a credit report is different from a legal accounting of your debts. Some creditors never report debts to credit agencies; that doesn't mean you don't legally owe the debt. Some statutes-of-limitations expire before the seven-year window used for tracking credit-report items; that doesn't mean those old delinquent debts can't continue to haunt your credit rating, even after you no longer legally owe anything on them.

It also explains why paying a delinquent debt doesn't remove it from your credit report, and may not do anything useful for you at all, from a credit-rating standpoint. (It can certainly be useful if it clears a debt you're still within the statute of limitations on and legally liable for.) Remember, the purpose of a credit report is to help credit-granting agencies judge how easy it will be to get money back from you. If you let a debt go delinquent, that makes you a pain for the creditors to deal with -- and even if you later get everything together and clear those delinquencies, there's still a legitimate red flag, since you did incur the delinquency in the first place.

On the other hand, credit reports and credit ratings do take recent history into account. A two-year-old delinquency will hurt you far less than a two-month-old one. As the problem ages, it becomes less harmful. And if you have recent problems, the best thing you can do is reach some sort of arrangement with your creditors before the account is charged off. (When that happens varies, but it's almost never less than 90 days or more than 365 days after the debt became delinquent.) Charge-offs are the really black smirches you want to avoid, and they're often preventable -- creditors will be pretty flexible about payment arrangements so long as you're active about negotiating with them.