Not paying consumer debts, like credit cards or loans, won’t usually result in jail time as this isn’t considered a criminal offense. However, there are several states where you can go to jail for unpaid debts like federal taxes or child support.
The process is not always straightforward, though. For example, it can come with additional court fees and fines, which, if not paid, could result in jail time. By understanding your state’s laws and planning accordingly, it may be possible to avoid serving time for unpaid debts.
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States where you can — and can’t — go to jail for debt
If you owe large amounts of unmanageable debt, the last thing you want to worry about is going to jail. Debt collectors often threaten jail time as a tactic to try to get you to pay. However, you won’t go to jail for not paying consumer debt — this includes credit cards, mortgage loans, payday loans, medical bills, and student loans. Nor will you be arrested or required to do court-ordered community service.
That’s not to say jail time is completely avoidable, though. If you have an unpaid debt, a creditor could initiate a lawsuit against you in civil court, particularly if you take deliberate action like closing your bank account. If you receive a court-mandated order or summons and fail to show up, you could go to jail for contempt of court. Because of this, it’s important to respond promptly and pay any court-ordered fines as soon as possible.
According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, some states cannot order an arrest or jail time for contempt of court. These include:
- New Mexico
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
However, the following 26 states could issue an arrest for contempt of court:
- Rhode Island
It’s important to note that there’s a difference between unpaid consumer debts and unpaid federal taxes or child support. Both taxes and child support could directly lead to jail time, especially if a judge has ordered payment and you fail to do so.
What exactly is contempt of court? To learn more, check out this video:
Debts that could land you in prison
Creditors and debt collectors cannot directly arrest someone for not paying consumer debts, but there are still several types of debt that could land you in prison. This includes unpaid criminal justice debt, taxes, and child support.
Criminal justice debt
Criminal justice debt, or court debt, is a type of debt that an individual who’s accused of committing a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction must pay. It includes:
- Fines — these are often applied as part of a punishment for a criminal or civil infraction; they may also include additional surcharges
- Fees or other costs — these primarily exist to help third parties or a governing body cover operational costs within the criminal justice system
- Other penalties — these include the cost of things like setting up a payment plan or collecting debt, as well as interest that accrues from not repaying a debt immediately
Unfortunately, criminal justice debt is often difficult or impossible to repay, especially for low-income households and certain minority groups. For those who can’t pay, these extra charges may lead to more significant problems they can’t necessarily escape without help. This includes:
- An ongoing cycle of debt due to being unable to pay the original debt plus the growing court debt
- Falling behind on other payments, such as rent or utilities, to pay the criminal justice debt
- Tanked credit score and difficulty qualifying for future forms of financing
- Arrest or incarceration
Certain states, including Alabama, Colorado, Georgia and Michigan could send you to prison for not paying your criminal justice debt.
Unpaid child support
Child support is a court-ordered payment that one divorced parent — usually the one without custody — makes to the other. It’s meant to help financially support any minor children until they’re at least 18 years of age. It may last longer in some cases, such as when the child is still a dependent and goes to college. Or it may end if the child gets married or passes away.
If you do not pay child support or fail to attend a court-mandated hearing, a judge could potentially send you to jail. States where you could go to jail for unpaid child support debt include:
- South Carolina
States like California and Missouri offer a third option for those who cannot afford to pay their criminal justice debts: choosing jail. By choosing to go to jail, it may be possible to avoid wage garnishment and reduce criminal justice debt.
However, choosing jail could also result in new debts. Currently, at least 43 states charge room and board fees for those in jail. Some states also charge for things like the initial booking and basic medical care.
These fees may be waived in certain cases (and states), but not always. This results in additional debt the individual and their family cannot pay.
For more information on the criminalization of private debt, check out this study from the ACLU.
Situations that could land you in jail for unpaid debt
You won’t go to jail for not paying a civil debt like a credit card or medical bill. You could, however, go to jail for not paying taxes or child support. Also, not paying debts could indirectly lead to:
- Warrants or arrest
- Incarceration through either criminal or civil proceedings
- Refusal for parole or probation
The U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed the use of prison to punish indigent criminal defendants (those who cannot afford legal representation in court) for not paying court fees and fines. Additionally, a debt collector cannot legally threaten you with jail time thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The concept of debtor’s prison was also made illegal in 1833.
There are some legal loopholes that debt collectors and creditors could use to try to get you to pay, though. Several state and local courts include fines, fees, and other court costs as a condition of probation or parole. This allows them to bypass the FDCPA regulations and potentially send you to jail if you don’t pay.
Other reasons that could result in jail time include:
- Unpaid federal taxes: Not paying federal taxes will not lead to jail time. However, you could be incarcerated for committing a tax-related crime. This includes failure to file a tax return, tax evasion, and knowingly filing a fraudulent return.
- Court fees and fines: In Bearden v. Georgia (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s unconstitutional to imprison someone who cannot pay court fees. But if you can pay but choose not to, you could be sent to jail.
Civil vs. criminal charges
When someone breaks the law, there are two types of cases that could happen: criminal and civil.
Criminal cases refer to topics that affect society as a whole. This includes things like assault, murder, and other criminal offenses. These cases usually require more evidence and a jury to decide their outcome. A guilty conviction typically results in jail time.
Civil cases are typically made against an individual or a business. They’re usually related to monetary or property-related issues or other conflicts that violate an individual’s rights. This includes things like unpaid consumer debts. Most cases do not result in jail time but rather a fine or another form of compensation.
Federal and state consumer collection laws, including the FDCPA, protect individuals by forbidding debt collectors from threatening criminal prosecution for failing to pay a debt. In particular, the FDCPA has a set of rules and regulations debt collectors must follow. If, for example, a debt collector wants to get their money, they must file a complaint or initiate a lawsuit.
The debtor’s examination
Creditors can ask a judge to order a wage garnishment or attach your bank account to get their money. If there isn’t any money, the court can then order you to appear for a debtor’s examination.
A debtor’s examination is essentially the first step before collection efforts begin. It’s a formal court proceeding where the creditor can question the debtor about their financial situation. This includes things like their income, bank accounts, investments, and other assets. The creditor may also ask a third-party individual who may currently have the debtor’s assets.
During this proceeding, you must answer any related questions and explain, under oath, why you haven’t paid your debt. If the court finds you have nothing to give, the examination may simply end. Or, you may be asked to negotiate a settlement with your creditor.
Either way, you must attend the debtor’s examination. If you do not, you could face jail time due to contempt of court. The only exception is if you find an alternative way to pay your creditors, or if you file bankruptcy.
Some creditors, particularly payday lenders, will repeatedly request the same debtor’s examination, hoping you will fail to appear.
Legislation to prevent abuses
Many state and federal laws exist to prevent debt collectors from using unfair, manipulative, or abusive practices to collect money. However, these laws are not foolproof.
Some states’ attorney general’s offices are trying to buckle down on these laws to better protect consumers. To learn about your rights, speak with an attorney or research your state’s debt collection and consumer laws.
Which types of debt will not land you in jail
One of the most common scare tactics debt collection agencies use to get their money is threatening arrest or jail time. This is extremely common with predatory lenders, such as payday lending. Since it tends to make the borrower feel anxious or scared, it’s also often effective.
However, creditors cannot send you to jail for not paying debts in your state. Along with this, most types of consumer debt cannot lead to arrest at all. This includes:
- Credit card debt
- Car loans
- Payday loans
- Student loans
- Medical bills
- Unpaid rent or utility bills
- Account overdrafts
Remember, debt collection agencies cannot legally threaten you with arrest or jail for unpaid consumer debt. This ban is included in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
If you have unpaid debts — ex. loans or medical bills — and receive a threat, you could potentially sue them. If you believe your rights have been violated but aren’t sure, contact one or more of the following:
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
- Your state attorney general’s office
The bottom line
Creditors cannot legally threaten you with jail time to get you to pay what you owe. However, they can take you to court. If you fail to attend a court-mandated hearing, you could be incarcerated.
Besides this, certain debts, such as criminal justice debt or child support, could result in jail time. Check with your state’s laws to determine whether you could go end up serving time and under what circumstances.
A debtor’s prison was originally a prison for individuals who could not pay their debts. Many people who couldn’t afford to pay their court-ordered debts were incarcerated until they could work off what they owed through labor or external funds. These prisons have since been banned in the United States. However, people may still be imprisoned for failing to pay court fees, fines, and related costs or for failing to appear in court.
Generally no. However, the IRS can levy your benefits if you owe child support or federal taxes. Social Security benefits are protected from any lawsuits initiated by debt collectors, though. If you receive these benefits in an account, the bank must also protect two months’ worth of benefits from any garnishments. If your benefits are garnished, inform the judge and consider seeking help from a lawyer.
A statute of limitations refers to the maximum time a debt collector or creditor can start a legal proceeding after a specific event. With debt, the statute of limitations begins the last day you made a payment. The time frame varies based on the state and type of debt but usually lasts between two and ten years. Once the statute of limitations has passed, no legal action can be pursued.