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If you’ve neglected to pay off a medical or credit card bill, a collection account may appear on your credit reports.
This typically happens when the original company owed writes off your debt as a loss and sells it to a debt collection agency. Generally speaking, companies only sell your debts after you become severely delinquent on a payment. This is known as a “charge off,” and it typically happens after 90 to 180 days of nonpayment.
If a collection account appears on your credit reports, the last thing you should do is ignore it. Collections can have a significant negative impact on your credit, so it’s important to know how to handle them.
How long do collections stay on your credit reports?
The short answer: Accounts in collection generally remain on your credit reports for seven years, plus 180 days from whenever the account first became past due.
The long answer: Once the original creditor determines your debt is delinquent and sells it to a collection agency, the collection account can be reported as a separate account on your credit reports.
Assuming the collection information is accurate, the collection account can stay on your reports for up to seven years plus 180 days from the date the account first became past due.
Confused? Let’s look at an example:
- Your account becomes late on Jan. 1, 2018.
- After 180 days of nonpayment, your creditor charges it off on June 30, 2018.
- The original delinquency date is Jan. 1, 2018, but the account appeared on your credit report(s) 180 days after that date. So the account should fall off your credit report(s) by June 30, 2025.
Do different types of debts, like medical collections, get treated differently?
Debts that enter into collections are generally treated the same and play by the same rules. In most cases, they’ll all take up to seven years to fall off your credit reports.
However, medical collections do have a few quirks in terms of how they’re reported. As part of the National Consumer Assistance Plan, medical debts won’t be reported until after a 180-day waiting period to allow insurance payments to be applied. The credit reporting agencies must also remove previously reported medical collections that have been or are being paid by insurance.
Medical collections may also impact your credit scores differently than other types of collection accounts, depending on the credit scoring model. That’s because newer credit scoring models such as VantageScore 4.0 and FICO® Score 9 de-emphasize the impact of unpaid medical collection accounts on consumer credit scores.
At a glance: How credit scores factor in collection accounts
FICO Score 8
FICO Score 9
|Ignores paid collection accounts||
Ignores medical collection accounts that are less than six months old
Weighs unpaid medical collection accounts less heavily than other types of collection accounts
Ignores small-dollar “nuisance” accounts that had an original balance of less than $100
Treats medical collection accounts, including those with a zero balance, like other collection accounts
Ignores paid collection accounts
Weighs unpaid medical collections less heavily than other types of collection accounts
Will making payments change the timeline or keep a collection from falling off your credit reports?
In general, making payments on (or fully paying off) a debt in collection should not affect the time it stays on your credit reports.
As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau notes, however, in some states a partial payment can restart the time period for how long the negative information appears on your credit reports.
A partial payment can also restart the statute of limitations, or period of legal liability, for the debt. If the debt is still within the statute of limitations, a debt collection agency may choose to sue you for your unpaid debt.
If you do pay off an account in collections, the collection agency may be able to contact the credit bureaus and remove the collection account from your credit reports before the seven-year mark.
You may have to do some extra pushing to make this happen.
Before paying off an account in collection, get on the phone with an agent from the debt collection agency and confirm that the agency will update your credit reports. If the agent can’t or won’t agree to remove the paid account from your credit reports, ask if the account can be updated as “paid as agreed upon” once your payment/s are received.
This may prove more difficult if you choose to settle your debt rather than pay off the full amount originally agreed upon. In other words, there’s a chance the collection agency may refuse to remove it because the debt was not fully paid. So when negotiating with a debt collector, it’s important to get everything in writing before making a payment.
Collection agencies don’t always play by the rules
Collection agencies can sometimes be pushy, and some may even violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which prohibits debt collectors from using abusive or deceptive practices in an attempt to collect from you.
If you suspect you’re being harassed or treated unfairly, it’s important to know your legal rights. We recommend consulting with a legal professional as a matter of course, but you can start by checking out our guide to your debt collection rights.
Can you dispute a collection with the credit bureaus?
You can absolutely dispute a collection if you think it’s erroneous. Formal disputes must be filed individually with each credit bureau and can usually be done online through each credit bureau’s website. You should also dispute the information with the company that provided the information.
Credit Karma’s Direct Dispute™ feature can help you dispute errors on your TransUnion® credit report. We can also help you file a dispute with Equifax directly if you see an error on your Equifax® credit report.
Nobody wants an account in collection, but sometimes we make mistakes or simply don’t have the resources to pay off a bill.
Rather than stress out or search for the nearest hole to crawl into, take a deep breath and understand that accounts in collection won’t plague your credit reports forever. They’ll generally fall off your reports after seven years, and you may even have options for getting them removed before then.
It’s also important to know that you can take action against unfair practices by debt collectors.
“Turn to a nonprofit credit counseling agency” if you’re struggling with accounts in collection, advises Todd Christensen, education manager at Debt Reduction Services. We’d add that you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to a legal professional if you need help navigating the murky waters of collections.