Dear Debt Adviser: How do I find out the timeline on my debt? I know after six or seven years the debt is taken off. I would like to know if there is a way to see if it is gone. -- Mark
Dear Mark: Now you see it, now you don't! It takes more than a magician to make debt disappear. It takes time. Here's how you know if a debt has vanished:
Check your credit reports. You can view your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, for free once each year. Make sure you view all three, because they can have different information.
Get your free reports from AnnualCreditReport.com. One warning though: Many companies advertise free credit reports, but in the fine print of the deal, you must sign up for some other service you may not want or need for a cost.
Once you receive your credit reports, you can check to see which debts are still showing up. The rules for the reporting of debts can be found in the Fair Credit Reporting Act, or FCRA. The act states that most negative items must be removed from your credit report seven years from the first date of delinquency. Some exceptions to the seven-year rule include Chapter 7 bankruptcy filings (10 years), judgments (seven years or until the state statute of limitations expires, whichever is longer), and money owed to or guaranteed by the government (unpaid taxes or student loans remain on your report indefinitely or until seven years from the date paid).
The way your question is worded, I believe you may also be asking how long until the debt goes away entirely. With that in mind, the FCRA rules apply only to the reporting life of a debt, not the collecting life span. Your state's statute of limitations, or SOL, for collecting a debt governs how long the debt can be legally collected using the courts. However, collection companies can attempt to collect the debt outside of the courts past the statute of limitations date.
So, if you are hoping the debt will go away not only from your credit report but also from your life, you may not get your wish. While they may be gone from your credit report, they may not be forgotten. Oldie but goodie debts are called "stale debts" in the industry. They represent a thriving business, as they are often sold and resold for pennies on the dollar. So even a partial payment makes a call or letter worthwhile for the collector. The only sure way to get rid of a debt is to pay what you owe or at least an agreed-upon portion of what you owe.
If your ultimate goal is to put your debt behind you and move on with a clean slate, I recommend you contact the collectors listed on your credit report for the accounts you know are yours. Make sure you know the amount you owe and come to a payment agreement.
Before you call to negotiate, I strongly suggest you know what you can realistically afford to pay per month or in a lump sum. If you negotiate a payment for less than the full amount owed, be sure to get the payment agreement in writing from the collector before you send in any payment.
Steve Bucci, author of "Credit Management Kit for Dummies," works with InCharge Debt Solutions, a nonprofit organization in Orlando, Fla. Email him at debtadviser(at)bankrate.com.