The following is provided for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Consult with a qualified legal professional for questions specific to your unique situation.
If you’re dealing with credit card debt that you can’t manage, you might be getting phone calls from collection agencies. And those debt collectors may be using aggressive tactics to scare you into paying, including threatening jail time. But can you really go to jail over credit card debt?
Legal repercussions of unpaid debt
The short answer is no. The Fair Debt Collection Practice Act prohibits debt collectors from threatening you with criminal prosecution and jail time. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t go to jail.
Even though you can’t be charged with a criminal act for not paying your debts, debt collectors can take you to civil court and get a judgment in their favor. This judgment means that you must pay your debt as agreed or have your wages garnished until it’s paid.
Here’s where things can get messy – especially depending on where you live and how litigious your creditor may be. If you miss a payment or fail to follow the steps outlined in the judgment, you could be held in contempt of court, which potentially could end with you being sent to jail. Following arrest, you would remain in jail until you can post bond, which is often the same amount as the judgment against you.
Read more: Why You Can't Afford to Ignore Unpaid Debts
Follow all court orders
See the difference? There are no longer any debtor’s prisons in the United States – you can’t go to jail for simply failing to make payment on a civil debt (credit cards and loans). You can, however, be taken to court and – assuming you lose – find yourself stuck with a civil judgment ordering you to pay your debt (usually through a wage garnishment). If you don’t fulfill the requirements of the judgment, you could possibly be arrested for violating the court order and end up in jail.
Fortunately, this type of action is rare and requires both an aggressive creditor and a willing court, which won’t be the case most of the time.
Civil cases also usually take a while to work through the system, which may give you time to make payment arrangements with debt collectors...outside of a courtroom. If you can settle the debt or make an ongoing arrangement without a civil judgment, then the risk of going to jail disappears. If you miss a payment, you can simply contact the debt collector to work out when you’ll be able to make it up without fear of an arrest warrant being issued.
Child support and unpaid taxes
While it’s fairly unlikely that unpaid credit card debt will ever land you in jail, unpaid taxes and child support are another matter entirely. Failing to pay your taxes is a crime and if you’re prosecuted you could very much end up in jail. If you’ve been ordered by a court to pay child support and fail to do so, you may be found in contempt of court and sentenced to serve jail time.
In all cases, it’s always best to try and work out a compromise with any agency or individual that you owe money to. Once it goes to court and a judgment is ordered against you, things only get more complicated and difficult to manage. Deal with it before it gets to that point and you won’t have to worry about jail time.
The bottom line is this: you can’t go to jail simply for falling behind on your credit card debt, but you could go to jail if you have a judgment filed against you and you don’t follow the court order. Avoid the situation altogether by dealing with your debt collectors before they take you to court.
If you’re worried about your debt situation, consider speaking with a nonprofit financial counselor. Counseling is free, confidential, and available 24/7. A trained counselor can help you understand your options and get you started down the right path for your goals.