There is no debtor’s prison

Q. Can I be arrested for not paying my credit card bill? The debt collector said he is sending the police out to my house if I don’t promptly pay.

A. You cannot be arrested if you don’t pay your credit card bill! There is no debtor’s prison in Texas. If you don’t pay money you owe, you may be sued, but you cannot be put in jail. In fact, the threat to throw you in jail for not paying your bills violates both federal and state debt collection laws. For more information about what may happen if you don’t pay your bills and your rights under our debt collection laws, visit my website,


Q. How do you get collection agencies to stop calling for really old debts? They keep calling about a 15 year old debt.

A. As I have said before, even if a debt is 15 years old, you still owe it and a collector can ask you to pay. After seven years, however, it should no longer appear on your credit report and after four years it is too late to sue. In other words, you still have a moral obligation to pay old debts, but you cannot be legally forced to pay. If you have decided that you are not going to pay the debt, federal law allows you to stop all further communication by sending a letter to the debt collector demanding it stop. I suggest you send the letter by certified mail. If the debt collector continues to harass you, it will be violating federal and state debt collection laws.


Q. I did a small construction job and was paid with a check after I completed the work. I deposited the check in my account, but it was returned because the person who gave me the check stopped payment. I went to his bank, and they said it was not their problem. How do I get paid? Why doesn’t his bank owe me the money?

A. The bank does not owe you the money because a bank generally has no liability when a check is written by one of its customers. A check is simply the customer’s order to the bank to pay money to someone else. The bank usually pays the check, and that is the end of the matter. But if there is not enough money in the account or the customer tells the bank not to pay (by issuing a stop payment order), the bank will promptly return the check and it has no further liability. You should always view a check as the customer’s promise to pay, not an obligation of the bank.

Fortunately, however, you are not out of luck. When a check is not paid, the person who wrote the check remains responsible. I suggest you let the person know you expect him to promptly pay the check, with cash this time, and that if he doesn’t pay you will file a claim in justice court. If you do have to sue, you can collect the amount of the check plus any fees your bank may have charged, and the costs of filing the lawsuit.


Q. I am trying to lease an apartment. When they ran a background check, they found an old criminal record. Can I be denied a lease because of this? It was more than 20 years ago.

A. As far as the law is concerned, a landlord may decide to whom he or she will rent and can discriminate against certain classes of people, unless the law prohibits such discrimination. For example, the law prohibits race, sex or age discrimination, so a landlord cannot refuse to rent to African-Americans, women or to people above a certain age. There is no law, however, prohibiting discrimination based on a criminal record. If landlords want to refuse to rent to someone with a misdemeanor or a felony, they may. About all I can suggest is that you explain the situation to the landlord, and demonstrate that you are someone who will be a good tenant. Offering a higher security deposit may also help.


Q. I have a small construction business. I have not been paid for a job. How long do I have to file a claim in justice court?

A. Your claim is for breach of contract. In Texas, you have four years to file a lawsuit for breach of contract.