Can You Go to Jail for Not Paying Bills?

Nicolas Cesare  | 

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 for your unpaid debt. Debt collection agencies  are no strangers to making you feel stressed about, 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?

Can You Go to Jail for Debt?

In the past, it was possible to be sent to debtors’ prison for leaving your debts unpaid. Fortunately, this practice has been outlawed in modern society. Although some predatory lenders may wish to see debtors’ prisons return, they are actually counterproductive for getting repaid. For one thing, the possibility of prison may dissuade people from taking out loans at all, crushing the modern lending industry.

Today in the United States no person can be sent to jail for failing to pay civil debt. However, when it comes to government-imposed expenses, things become more complicated.

What are Civil Debts?

Civil debts are any debt between two non-government entities. Some examples of civil debt might include:

When Can You Go to Jail for Not Paying Bills?

You can’t go to jail for unpaid civil debt, but that’s not always the case for unpaid bills from the government. If you don’t pay some of the following, jail is a possible punishment for your unpaid debt.

You Don’t Make Court-Ordered Payments

Payments like child-support are court-ordered, meaning that a court of law has commanded you to make them. If you willfully ignore these payments, then you can pay sent to jail. In this case, you’re being punished for contempt of court specifically, rather than merely not making payments.

You Refuse to Pay Taxes

Refusal to pay taxes counts as tax evasion. In the United States, tax evasion can land you a prison sentence of up to five years.

You Fail to Appear in Court for Debt-Related Summons

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. In spite of the fact that your debt has given way to a case in court, 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.

However, 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. If the owner of your debt decides to sue you, 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.

Can You Go to Jail for Not Paying 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 use court-ordered wage garnishment to recoup the unpaid bills. As always, ignoring court orders can see you ending up in jail, but no collections agency can send you to jail for merely leaving your debt unpaid.

Debtor’s Examination

In addition to a plea for wage garnishment, a debt collections agency may also 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. However, as long as you show up to your debtor’s examination and answer the questions truthfully, you needn’t 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.


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

This post was updated February 13, 2018. It was originally published February 1, 2018.