Can You Go to Jail for Debt?

Nicolas Cesare  | 

The possibility of going to jail for unpaid debts is an alarming prospect. While there are federal and state laws against going to jail for debt, it’s an unfortunate reality for many Americans.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), thousands of debtors are arrested and jailed as a result of not appearing in post-judgement court proceedings related to debt, and millions more are threatened with jail time by unscrupulous creditors looking to extract payment.

If you’ve ever been behind on payments for your debt, whether it’s medical debt, your credit card bills or your mortgage, then you may have been threatened with a lawsuit. Debt collection agencies are no strangers to making you feel stressed about unpaid debt, so the possibility of legal action is one of their more powerful tools. However, what’s the worst that they can do? Can you really be sent to jail for not paying your debts?

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This article will provide some insight regarding which types of debts may lead to imprisonment, as well as what you can do to avoid going to jail over unpaid debt.

Can You Go to Jail for Civil Debt?

In the past, it was possible to be sent to debtors’ prison for leaving your civil debts unpaid. Fortunately, this practice has been outlawed in modern society. Today in the United States no person can be sent to jail for failing to pay civil debt — or debt between two non-government entities, such as credit card debt or unpaid medical bills.

Depending on the severity of your civil debt, the owner of your debt (whether it be the original lender or a debt collection agency) may decide to take you to court, suing you over the unpaid debt. The court cannot sentence you to jail for not paying that debt; instead, they are more likely to order wage garnishment until your debts are paid.

What Happens When You Don’t Pay Collections Agencies?

Debt collections agencies are notorious for being as annoying as possible when it comes to collecting. However, you should always remember that, without involving a court, collections agencies have very little legal power to force you to hand over the money. Mostly, they are only able to send you reminders of your debt and report your unpaid debt to credit reporting bureaus, where it will negatively impact your credit score.

If a debt collections agency decides to involve the court in your unsettled debt, they may be able to have a civil judgement issued against you to impose court-ordered wage garnishments to recoup the unpaid bills. In addition, a debt collections agency may summon you to court to answer questions about your ability to pay. In particular, they may do this if they feel that you are being dishonest about your finances and your means to pay the debt that you’ve racked up.

As with other court orders, failing to appear in court can lead to jail time for contempt of court, depending on where you live. However, as long as you show up to your debtor’s examination and answer the questions truthfully, you don’t need to fear jail time for your unpaid bills. Debtors’ prisons are a thing of the past. As long as you follow any court orders that you receive related to your debt, you will never be jailed for any civil debts that you owe.

States Where You Can Go to Jail for Civil Debt

While you can’t be sent to jail for your unpaid debt, in some states you can still be sent to jail for failing to appear at your debt hearing. According to the ACLU, these states include:

Arizona Minnesota
Arkansas Missouri
California Nebraska
Colorado Ohio
Florida Oregon
Idaho Pennsylvania
Illinois Rhode Island
Indiana Tennessee
Kansas Texas
Louisiana Utah
Maryland Washington
Massachusetts Wisconsin
Michigan  

If the owner of your debt decides to sue you in one of the above states, you will receive a summons indicating the date and time of your hearing. Be sure to attend or you could be held in contempt of court and sent to jail.

Court-Ordered Levies and Taxes

This type of debt is a much more serious issue. When it comes to government-imposed expenses, things become more complicated. If you don’t pay some of the following, jail is a possible punishment for your unpaid debt.

Can You Go to Jail for Not Paying Child Support?

Payments like child support are court-ordered, meaning that a court of law has commanded you to make them. If you are delinquent in these payments, the other parent can ask for a hearing and ask that you be held in contempt. In this case, you’re being punished for contempt of court specifically, rather than merely not making payments.

This charge is usually considered a criminal misdemeanor, which can lead to up to six months in prison. Continued failure to pay child support may lead to increased charges. If it is increased to a criminal felony, you could spend up to two years in prison.

To avoid imprisonment in this situation, you must be prepared to show that you did not deliberately disobey court orders. It’s vital to consult with a lawyer for the best path forward. They may advise you to gather evidence proving that you do not have sufficient income to make the payments, for instance.

How Long Can You Get Away Without Paying Taxes?

It’s best to pay your tax returns promptly. Failure to do so can have numerous repercussions, including fees, property seizures, court summons, and, yes, jail time. Refusal to pay taxes counts as tax evasion, which is a federal crime. In the United States, tax evasion can land you a prison sentence of up to five years.

If you currently owe the IRS, you should reach out to them as soon as possible. The IRS offers many options for taxpayers who cannot pay, and exploring these options could ultimately help you avoid imprisonment.


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Nick Cesare is a writer from Boise, ID. In his free time he enjoys rock climbing and making avocado toast.