Owing a lot of money that you can’t repay is a frightening prospect — but unfortunately, lots of people find themselves facing this situation,, unable to get out of debt. If you’re behind on your bills and worried about the consequences, you probably have all kinds of questions going through your brain. You may even wonder if you could be legally arrested for debt you can’t pay back.
The good news is, you can’t typically get hauled off to jail for not repaying what you owe — although there are some behaviors connected to your debt that could eventually lead to your arrest. But that doesn’t mean skipping out on debt isn’t without consequences; you may have to deal with collectors, ruined credit, or legal proceedings.
Despite the challenges of being behind on the bills, you also need to be aware that you have legal rights when collectors come calling. Understanding the consequences of nonpayment, as well as protections in place for debtors, can help you to be prepared to cope if you owe. Here’s what to know.
Can you be arrested for debt?
In the United States, you cannot be arrested for simply not paying your debt. In fact, Congress outlawed debtors’ prisons in 1833. One hundred and fifty years later, the Supreme Court confirmed that debtors’ prisons are unconstitutional.
While debt collectors don’t have the authority to haul you off to jail, this doesn’t mean there aren’t other legal consequences for failing to pay your debt. If you don’t fulfill your obligations and pay what is owed, you might face some of the following ramifications:
- You could be sued and required to appear in court.
- Your property could be repossessed. This is common if you don’t pay your car loan or if you fail to pay your mortgage and your home is foreclosed on.
- Your wages could be garnished. This means that the court orders money be taken directly out of your paycheck and transferred to your lender.
- You could have liens placed on your property. This would give creditors an ownership interest in your property; if you sold, they’d have a claim on the proceeds.
Nonpayment of debt is also reported on your credit report, which lowers your credit score and makes it difficult or impossible to borrow money in the future.
When could you be imprisoned for debt issues?
While you technically cannot be imprisoned for not paying a debt, there are some circumstances where your debt could eventually land you in jail.
How could you be arrested for debt, despite the fact that federal law says otherwise? Exact laws vary by state, but there are a few ways debt could land you in jail:
- You fail to show up to a court date when a lawsuit is filed against you. If debt collectors sue you, you’re ordered to appear in court on a certain date. If you don’t go, the judge could issue a warrant for your arrest. Sadly, sometimes borrowers don’t receive proper notification of a lawsuit and miss a court date inadvertently, landing them in prison.
- You disobey court orders related to your debt: A judge can issue a bench warrant for your arrest, not just for failure to show up but also if you disobey any court order connected to your debt. This can even include things like court-ordered child support — if you don’t pay your child support obligations and can’t prove you’re unable to afford the payment, you could be imprisoned.
- You fail to pay debts associated with legal violations: If you have unpaid traffic tickets, fines from criminal cases, fees from being on probation, or other debt associated with the criminal court system, you could be imprisoned for not paying it.
- You could be imprisoned for fraud or theft. For some types of debt, such as payday loans, you’re asked to write post-dated checks. If you end up not having money in your account to cover the check, payday lenders could accuse you of check fraud or theft by check — which are criminal offenses.
What to do if a lender threatens to arrest you
While there are circumstances where you can be imprisoned in connection with debt, debt collectors don’t have the authority to send you to jail. In fact, collectors aren’t allowed to make idle threats of your imprisonment at all.
That’s because the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) says a collector can’t threaten you with arrest unless that threat is true.
If a collector falsely threatens your arrest, you can submit a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau online or by calling (855) 411-CFPB (2372). You could also sue collectors who violate the FDCPA, so you may wish to talk with an attorney about how to pursue a claim for damages.
Know your rights so your debts don’t land you in jail
Now you know the circumstances under which you could potentially be arrested for not paying a debt; you can hopefully avoid this consequence by making sure to show up to any court dates and abiding by all court orders. You can also take action if a collector wrongly threatens you with arrest.
Of course, the best way to avoid potential jail time or other serious consequences is to pay your debt on time — or to talk with your creditors if you can’t. Lenders may be willing to work with you to create a payment plan when you don't know how to pay off debt, so it’s worth reaching out to your creditors as soon as you know you have a problem to find out what your options are.