If you’re struggling with debt that you can’t pay off, one of your biggest questions is probably “can I go to jail for this?” That’s a normal reaction, especially if you’re dealing with debt collection agencies, which can be very aggressive when they contact you. Here’s what you need to know:
- The good news: Debt collectors can’t send you to jail. In fact, it’s illegal for them to say that they can.
- The bad news: There are ways that debt can indirectly land you in jail. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that every year, thousands of consumers are jailed for failure to pay their debts, and more than one million are threatened with criminal prosecution. 1
Read on to find out how you can go to jail for debt and what you can do to protect yourself.
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Can you be arrested for debt?
No, you can’t usually be arrested for debt, although as mentioned, there are some exceptions.
Debt collectors used to be able to jail people for their debts, but that changed in 1833 when debtors’ prisons were banned under federal law. 2 As a result, you can no longer be arrested for not paying consumer debts (debts related to the purchase of consumer goods or services).
Common types of consumer debt that you can’t be jailed for include:
- Credit card debt
- Overdrawn bank accounts
- Car loans
- Hospital bills
- Payday loans
- Student loans
- Electricity, gas, or other utility bills
Although you can’t be arrested for these types of debt, you can still be arrested for debt-related crimes, such as committing theft or fraud or defying a court order.
In addition, while debt collectors can’t get you arrested, they can still take other types of legal action. For example, if you’ve been ignoring your debt collectors, they may sue you as a final resort to get payment from you. We’ll describe what debt collectors are allowed to do (and the ways that debt can indirectly land you in jail) in the rest of this article.
What debt collectors can and can’t do
Most debt collectors have to comply with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which is the main federal law regulating debt collection practices.
Note that the FDCPA applies only to third-party debt collection agencies. Your original creditor (the person or company that first extended you credit) may be subject to different rules, depending on the laws in your state and the terms of your contract with your creditor.
However, if you have a debt that’s so severely delinquent that you’re worrying about jail, you’re probably dealing with a third-party debt collection agency (such as one of the ones on this list of debt collection agencies), which means that the FDCPA applies.
Here’s a summary of the main things debt collectors aren’t allowed to do under the FDCPA: 3
- Call you incessantly
- Call at inconvenient times (by default, that means before 8 am or after 9 pm, your time)
- Call your workplace if you tell them you can’t receive calls at work
- Place automated calls or send prerecorded messages telling you to make payments
- Misrepresent the amount you owe
- Threaten you with illegal actions or actions they don’t actually intend to take
- Threaten you with jail time or say they’ll have you arrested
The last point is particularly important—not only can debt collectors not have you arrested or sent to jail for your debts, they’re not allowed to claim that they can do so. Nonpayment of consumer debt is a civil matter, not a criminal matter, and debt collectors aren’t allowed to say otherwise.
If a debt collector falsely threatens you with arrest or jail time, they’re in violation of the FDCPA, and you can lodge a complaint against them with organizations like the Federal Trade Commission. We’ll describe that process in more depth at the bottom of this article.
How debt can still land you in prison
Here are seven ways that you can still get arrested for debt in many states.
1. Contempt of court
You can be jailed if a judge decides that you’re in contempt of court, meaning that you’ve shown disrespect toward the authorities in the courtroom or somehow disrupted the legal proceedings. In some states, simply failing to show up to court after you receive a court summons can be enough for a judge to rule that you’re in contempt of court.
Specifically, you may be charged with contempt of court if you fail to do any of the following: 6
- Show up to court
- Take part in post-judgment proceedings
- Provide the court with information about your finances
- Agree to a payment plan as ordered by a judge
- Make payments as ordered by a judge
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported more than 1,000 cases across 26 states in which civil court judges had people arrested for missing court hearings regarding unpaid civil debt judgments. The debts in question were sometimes as small as $28. 6
Post-judgment proceedings: What they involve and why you can’t miss them
If a lawsuit ends with a judgment being entered against you, you’ll have to take part in “post-judgment proceedings.”
These proceedings usually involve a “judgment debtor’s examination,” which takes place after a court case. In these examinations, defendants have to answer questions about their wages, bank account balances, property, and assets.
If you’re instructed to attend post-judgment proceedings, it’s important that you don’t miss them and that you give all of the information required. In 44 states, judges are allowed to issue an arrest warrant for contempt of court if you fail to attend post-judgment proceedings or fail to provide financial information. 6
2. Nonpayment of criminal justice debt
In several states, you can be jailed for failing to pay criminal justice debts. These consist of debts you incur during legal proceedings, and may include fines, fees, or restitution (the return of money or other gains made through improper means). 5
The states which sometimes impose jail time for these debts include Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, and Michigan.
In theory, you can only be jailed if you refuse to repay a debt as ordered by a judge—you can’t be jailed if you can’t afford to pay. In practice, there have been reports of this happening. 7
If you’re at risk of being jailed for nonpayment of fines or fees ordered by a judge, try to pay at least some of the fees and try to work out a payment plan so that you can avoid defaulting in the future.
3. Failure to pay child support
It’s against federal law to intentionally avoid paying child support. 8 Under the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998, depending on the amount you owe and what measures you’ve taken to avoid payment, you could face a jail term of up to 2 years. 9
If you’ve fallen behind on your child support payments, contact your state’s child support enforcement agency. You also have the option of requesting lower child support payments by filing a “motion to modify.”
4. Tax evasion
Tax-related crimes—such as willfully failing to pay your taxes in full or giving false information on your tax returns—can get you jailed in all states for up to five years. 10
Note that if you’re unable to pay your taxes because of financial hardship, you can simply defer payment (and don’t worry—your taxes don’t affect your credit score, even if you defer them).
In general, you won’t go to jail simply because you can’t afford to pay your taxes. 11 You only risk jail time if you deliberately commit tax evasion or tax fraud.
5. “Choosing jail”
Some jurisdictions let you “choose” to go to jail as a way of canceling court-imposed debts instead of paying them. When this happens, the amount of time you spend in jail is converted into credit that goes toward canceling out your debt. California is one prominent state where this is an option. 12
6. Intentional fraud claims
In some cases, predatory payday lenders may try to get you arrested for sending bounced checks. They do this by getting a postdated check from you as security in case you don’t pay them back. They then deposit this check early and claim that you intentionally committed fraud by writing a check that you knew would bounce.
Unsurprisingly, this practice is illegal, but it still happens. Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit social, economic, and racial justice organization, conducted research on payday loans in Texas and found that payday lenders were using consumers’ checks in this manner, despite the fact that doing so is explicitly banned under the FDCPA. 3 13
7. Rent-to-own companies
One report by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) revealed questionable practices by rent-to-own companies. 14 These companies—usually appliance, electronics, and furniture retailers—were offering lease agreements for items that customers couldn’t afford to pay for in full upfront.
According to the NCLC report, when customers missed a payment, these companies would sometimes threaten to have them arrested unless they returned the item they were renting within 48 hours. In some cases, these people actually were arrested. 14
How to avoid going to jail for debt
Thankfully, you can avoid going to jail over debt by taking the following steps to get your debt under control and educate yourself on your rights and options.
1. Respond to your court summons
If you receive a court summons, it’s crucial to respond. Failing to do so could have the following consequences:
- You could be charged for failing to show up: As mentioned, you can be arrested for failing to attend a court hearing (or the post-court proceedings) in some states.
- The judge might make a default judgment: This will usually be in favor of the creditor if you’re not there to argue your case. If that happens, you may be ordered to pay your debts. You can sometimes ask the court to have a default judgment “set aside” (canceled), but this involves a lot of extra bureaucracy, and your request may be denied. In the meantime, if you fail to make your payments as ordered by the court, you could be jailed.
Consider getting legal representation. An attorney might be able to get the case dismissed for you and will be able to help you avoid the pitfalls that come with lawsuits.
If you can’t make it on your court date, call the creditor’s attorney and ask for the date to be rescheduled. If they say no, call or visit your court clerk’s office to ask about getting the date changed.
2. Know your rights under the FDCPA
If a debt collector doesn’t adhere to the regulations specified in the FDCPA, you can file complaints with the following organizations or people:
In addition to federal laws, your state may also have its own debt collection laws, which sometimes cover your original creditor as well as third-party debt collectors. You can contact your state attorney general’s office to learn more about your rights according to the laws in your state.
3. Take control of your debt
Getting your debt under control is the best way to avoid being sued or risking jail time.
If you make your minimum payments on time every month, you shouldn’t be bothered by debt collectors.
However, paying only the minimum amount required might not be enough to get out of debt if you already have a high outstanding balance. In this case, you may want to instead focus on taking more significant measures to get out of credit card debt (or whatever type of debt you’re in).
Consider the following strategies:
- Credit counseling: A nonprofit credit counselor can help you take stock of your situation and tell you about the best debt relief strategies (for instance, by weighing the pros and cons of debt management vs. debt settlement).
- Debt consolidation: This is a debt management method that involves taking out a personal loan and using that loan to pay off your credit card debt. The loan should have a lower interest rate than your credit card interest rates, meaning you’ll have lower monthly payments.
- Hardship programs: These are alternative payment plans that your creditors may offer you if you’re having difficulty repaying your debts. For example, you may be able to negotiate a lower interest rate, reduced minimum payments, or a pause on payments.
- Bankruptcy: This is usually a last resort, but it can also give you a fresh start if your finances are beyond repair.