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Can You Be Arrested and Put in Jail if You Don’t Pay Your Debts?

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In a Nutshell

You can’t be arrested or put in jail for not repaying consumer debts like credit cards or medical bills. But you can be sued, which sometimes leads to arrest or jail time. If you’re sued and don’t comply with the court requirements, like showing up for a debt examination, you can be arrested. You can avoid being arrested by complying with any court orders.

Written by Attorney Todd CarneyLegally reviewed by Attorney Paige Hooper
Updated August 25, 2023


Can You Go to Jail for Debt?

Long ago, it was common in America to jail people who couldn’t pay their debts. But in 1833, U.S. federal law made this illegal and states got rid of their debtors’ prisons. 

Today, you can’t face prison time for failing to pay civil debt. This is more commonly known as consumer debt, and it refers to many types of debt, including credit cards, medical bills, student loans, personal loans, payday loans, auto loans, mortgages, rent, utility bills, overdrafts on accounts, and more. 

That said, you can be arrested if you fail to make court-ordered child support payments or if you commit a federal tax-related crime.

You Can Be Jailed for Child Support or Tax Crimes

Child support is a matter of state law, and each state has its own rules for enforcing support obligations. In general, though, you probably won’t be arrested for missing one or two child support payments. 

Courts tend to use jail time as a last resort for enforcing child support, because 

  • A parent who is in jail usually can’t earn money and therefore can’t make their support payments

  • Incarceration can limit a parent’s ability to see their child

  • An arrest may cause a parent to lose their job, leaving them unable to make future support payments

As a result, courts usually try other methods, such as wage garnishment, before putting a parent in jail, and jail time for unpaid support is usually less than six months. If you don’t have the ability to pay your child support payments, you can use this as a defense to help you avoid jail time. In this case, you’ll need to notify the court of your inability to pay and provide evidence that supports your claim. 

You can also face jail time over unpaid federal taxes if you’ve violated a tax-related law, such as purposefully failing to file a tax return, committing tax evasion, or filing a fraudulent return.

Finally, you can face jail time over court fines and fees in some cases. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it’s unconstitutional to put someone in jail if they can’t afford to pay court fines or fees. But if you have the money to pay these fees and fines but choose not to, you can go to jail. Indigent or jobless people can still go to jail over unpaid fines, depending on the court’s review of an individual’s finances.

Can Debt Collectors Threaten to Arrest You if You Don’t Pay?

No. It's illegal for debt collection agencies to threaten you with jail time, arrest, or criminal prosecution for an unpaid civil debt. This and other rights are outlined in the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). If a debt collector threatens you with jail time or arrest, you may have a case to sue the debt collector for monetary damages.

It’s important to note that the FDCPA only regulates debt collection agencies, so calls and other contact from original creditors like a credit card company or a real estate mortgage company aren’t covered by the FDCPA.

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Can Creditors Use Other Strategies To Get You Arrested for Unpaid Debt?

Technically, no. You can’t be arrested for not paying a debt. That said, in most states, you can be arrested for knowingly violating/disobeying a court order. If a creditor or debt collector sues you for an unpaid debt and wins a judgment against you, the court may order you to pay the debt within a certain time, or to appear at a debtor examination. If you don’t comply with the court’s order, you could be found in contempt of court, which is grounds for arrest in many states.

What Does It Mean To Be in Contempt of Court?

Although debt collectors and creditors can’t threaten to have you arrested or sent to jail for unpaid debt, they are allowed to sue you. You’ll know you’ve been sued because you’ll receive a civil court order and summons. If a lender sues you and you don’t show up for court, the judge will likely issue a default judgment against you. 

If this happens — or if you do show up but the creditor wins a judgment against you — the court can require you to follow post-judgment orders. This means you may have to show up to future court appearances or for a debtor’s examination.

If you don’t comply with these orders, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the court can issue a warrant. The warrant allows you to be arrested and put in jail. As far as the law goes, in these instances, you aren’t going to jail for the debt itself but for being in contempt of court. 

What States Allow for Contempt of Court Arrests?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports that the following 44 states, plus the District of Columbia, allow judges to order an arrest and jail for contempt of court: 

Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

What States Don’t Allow Contempt of Court Arrests?

Alabama, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming are the six states that don’t allow you to go to jail for contempt.

What Is a Debtor’s Examination?

Once a creditor has a judgment against you, they can ask the court to order you to appear at a debtor examination. At a debtor examination, the creditor or debt collector can ask you questions about your financial situation, such as where you work or what bank you use. The creditor can then use this information to try to collect the judgment amount from you using methods like wage garnishment or bank levy. At a debtor’s examination, you must answer the questions under oath. 

If you fail to show up for the exam, refuse to answer the questions, or purposely give false answers, you can be arrested.

If you can’t show up for an examination, you should reach out to the creditor’s attorney ahead of time and request to reschedule. If the other side won’t reschedule, you should file a motion with the court. You should also answer the questions truthfully when you do take the exam. You don’t have the right to remain silent during the examination.

Protect Yourself From Aggressive Creditors: Know Your Rights

Although federal law forbids debt collectors from threatening you with jail, these collectors don’t always follow the law. Threatening you with jail time is considered harassment under the FDCPA. If this happens to you, file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). 

You can also protect yourself by responding to any court notices or summons you receive. If you’re served a summons, you get an opportunity to present your defense in court. In some of these instances, the law might be fully on your side, such as if the debt is past the statute of limitations. Never ignore an order to appear in court, including for a court hearing or a debtor’s exam. If you do, it may lead to jail time.

Finally, make sure you know your rights. If you need help dealing with a debt collection lawsuit, you can look for a nonprofit legal aid organization or reach out to a local attorney for legal advice. Your state attorney general’s consumer division will likely have resources as well.

Settle the Debt or Seek Debt Relief To Get Rid of the Debt

Another way to protect yourself from aggressive collectors is through debt relief. Examples include consolidating your debt, setting up a debt management plan, negotiating a settlement with the debt collector, or filing for bankruptcy. 

Debt settlement may be a particularly good option for those with medical debt. Negotiating medical bills is common practice. Settlements can also work for overdue income tax debt (contact the IRS) or credit card debt that’s been sent to collections.

If you’re struggling with lots of debt and can’t foresee ever being able to make your monthly payments, it may be helpful to look into filing for bankruptcy. Once you file, the court will issue an automatic stay, which will stop all collection activities.

A free consultation with a nonprofit credit counselor is a great place to start to better understand which option is best for you. Seeking some way to resolve your debt won’t just help you avoid prison, it can help you clean up your credit report, improve your credit score, stabilize your bank account, and get you more favorable interest rates long term. The bottom line is that dealing with your debt offers many benefits.

Let’s Summarize…

Although you generally can’t be put in jail just for having debt, creditors have found loopholes related to debt that can land you in prison. Debt collectors can sue you for the debt and get a judgment against you from the court. 

If you fail to adhere to post-judgment court procedures, you can be placed in jail for contempt. Also, if you don’t comply with a debt examination, you can go to jail. Finally, issues stemming from breaking federal tax laws, not paying child support, and not paying court fees when you’re financially able can all also land you in jail.

Despite these loopholes, debt collectors are forbidden by federal law from threatening you with prison time to get you to pay a debt. To protect yourself, know what debt collection techniques are considered harassment under federal law and always pay attention to court notices. Doing all of this will keep you out of jail.



Written By:

Attorney Todd Carney

LinkedIn

Attorney Todd Carney is a writer and graduate of Harvard Law School. While in law school, Todd worked in a clinic that helped pro-bono clients file for bankruptcy. Todd also studied several aspects of how the law impacts consumers. Todd has written over 40 articles for sites such... read more about Attorney Todd Carney

Attorney Paige Hooper

LinkedIn

Paige Hooper is a seasoned consumer bankruptcy attorney with 15 years of experience successfully representing debtors in Chapter 7, Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 cases. Paige began practicing bankruptcy law in 2006 and started her own solo, multi-state bankruptcy practice in 2012. Gi... read more about Attorney Paige Hooper

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