Can You Be Arrested and Go to Jail for Not Paying Credit Card Debt?

Karley Walker  | 

Can You Go to Jail for Not Paying Credit Card Debt?

No — not anymore. Thankfully, debtors’ prison (yes, it really existed) is no longer a viable punishment for unpaid credit card debts. The only debts that can lead to jail time are unpaid taxes and child support. However, while you may not be spending your nights in jail for unpaid debts, you can still be taken to court. Dealing with debt collections through stressful court dates and hearings is no picnic, but as long as you are appearing in court to contend with any credit card collections, you can’t be put in jail.

Can You Be Sued for Not Paying Credit Card Debt?

Yes, but in civil — not criminal — court. The main difference between the two is: civil court tends to be between two individuals or corporations whereas criminal court typically involves formal government charges against an individual. If found guilty in a civil court case, the defendant will likely be asked to pay the charges ordered by a judge. This often means additional fees and penalties but you won’t be charged with a felony or misdemeanor — yet. If you end up not paying your fees after the rulings, then you may face criminal penalties.

What If Debt Collectors Threaten You With Jail or Arrest?

Although you can’t be arrested and put in jail for unpaid credit card debts, you aren’t out of the woods quite yet. Being sued by collection agencies often results in court orders to resolve the unpaid debts, and if you fail to follow through on court-ordered payments, the possibility of incarceration arises.

At times, it can feel as though debt collectors hold all the power over your financial struggles, but following through with the legal orders the judge makes will help settle your case without arrests or jail time. Outside of this specific scenario, debt collectors cannot threaten you with arrest or incarceration. Don’t let them intimidate or bully you.

You Can Be Arrested or Jailed for Violating a Court Order

If you get sued by collections (as mentioned above) and you fail to appear in court or fail to pay court-mandated fees, in some states you may face criminal penalties for violating court orders, which can technically lead to arrest or jail time. This usually only happens though if you’ve refused any court summons or failed to fulfill the agreements made in court. Violating these orders can land you in jail, but not the debt itself.

You May Face Wage Garnishment or Liens

Debt collectors will do everything they can to get what’s owed on credit card debts. While they can’t have you arrested or jailed, lawsuits over unpaid debts can lead to other penalties forcing you to into repayment. Collections may begin garnishing your paychecks or impose liens to ensure repayment.

Understanding credit card policies and how they work can be difficult — especially when it comes to missed payments. You’ll likely want to avoid any conflict with your credit card provider, but financial predicaments do happen. The number one thing to keep in mind is communication. A collection agency wants you to pay back what’s owed more than anything else.

Communicating any issues that might arise is an essential tool for avoiding court orders, wage garnishments, and a wrecked credit score. And of course, settling any missed payments with collection agencies as soon as possible will get you back on track to achieving more financial stability and comfort.

Know Your Rights and Avoid Credit Card Debt

Falling behind on credit card payments is stressful, worrisome, and draining. These feelings are only heightened when legal penalties begin popping up over unpaid debts. Court dates, fees, wage garnishment — you may also be worried about serving jail time for your credit card debt. While incarceration is not likely to happen over unpaid credit card debts, delinquent credit card debts can lead to a ruined credit score, fees and penalties, and time in civil court. In order to keep your head above water, it’s important to be well-informed about your rights and responsibilities as a credit card holder, and keep up with your payments to avoid going up against debt collection agencies.


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This post was updated February 2, 2018. It was originally published February 3, 2018.