Debt Collection / Jail For Unpaid Debt

Can You Go To Jail For Debt? Find Out How Your State Works

Written by Ben Tejes
Updated Jun 20th, 2023

One of the biggest fears of those who are falling behind is what criminal action can be taken against them for unpaid credit card, medical and general unsecured debt. While it's well known that prison used to be a likely outcome for debtors at the foundation of America, it may not be well known that debtors’ prisons have been outlawed. Because of this, there shouldn’t be a chance that you go to jail for debt, right? Unfortunately, debt collection agencies have made a business of going after debtors, and it seems like they have found some loopholes. So while there is no longer a systemic process of throwing debtors in prison, there are still some ways that unpaid bills will get you in jail. This article will take a look at those instances and see how you can protect yourself. 

Reasons You Might Go To Jail For an Unpaid Debt

As mentioned above, debtors' prisons used to be very real. In fact, up until 1833, when these prisons were banned under federal law, you could be jailed for owing as little as 60 cents. If placed in debtors’ prison, you would remain there until you could either come up with the funds from an outside source or you would have to work penal labor in the prison until the debt was paid off. It was not uncommon for someone to be put in jail for their debts and not be able to get out for years, and even decades. And while there are no longer debtors’ prisons, there are still some reasons why unpaid bills will land you in jail. Generally, here are a few:

Willfully Defying a Court Order

If you still owe a debt that is not backed by collateral, the only way debt collectors can get money from you is by filing a lawsuit. Once the debt collectors file a lawsuit, the court will serve you papers. This will let you know the date and time of your hearing, and you are expected to attend. If you refuse to answer the lawsuit and don’t show up for the hearing, the case can move from a civil case to a criminal case. At that point, the court is able to put out a warrant for your arrest for defying a court order.

Similarly, if you attend the hearing and lose, you will likely receive a court order to repay the debt collector (through various means). Should you refuse to do this (and have the power to prevent it from happening), then you are, again, defying a court order. These can open you up to criminal prosecution and might end with you in jail. 

Evading or Defrauding the IRS

While not paying your taxes is a terrible idea that will end in fines and audits, it won’t get you thrown in jail. However, lying and manipulating the IRS system can definitely land you in some hot water. Tax evasion is when someone purposefully does not file and/or pay their taxes despite having the means to do so. This can look like underreporting your income, falsifying income reports, claiming illegitimate children or dependents, or even claiming fake business expenses. Tax fraud is similar. Typically, this can look like not reporting your income, using a false social security number to file, or claiming false deductions. While there is room for honest mistakes in filing your taxes, willfully and knowingly evading or defrauding the IRS can (and likely will) land you in prison. 

Not Appearing for Debtor’s Examination

This is similar to defying a court order. A debtor’s examination is a court-ordered process. During this, the debtor must come to court and answer questions about their unpaid bills and financial situation. Unfortunately, debt collection agencies have been utilizing debtor examinations as a way to force debtors to either show up to court, pay back the debt, or face jail time. The court can file a warrant for your arrest if you are ordered to attend a debtor’s examination and refuse. Oftentimes, if this is the case, the debt collection agency will push for the arrest warrant in an effort to get you to pay what you owe. 

Knowingly Missing Child Support Payments

If you were ordered by the court to make child support payments to the person who has custody of your child, then you can face jail time for not making those payments. This would also be considered defying a court order. Fortunately, there is hesitancy to put parents who are not able to make regular payments in jail. However, willfully and maliciously withholding payments is a different story. Having the ability to make the payments and simply refusing to do so may end with you in jail. 

States Where You Can Go to Jail for Debt

Keep in mind that laws vary from state to state. However, in general, you can go to jail for unpaid bills in the following states:

  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Understand Debt Forgiveness And Your Options To Resolve The Debt Before Jail Time

You have options to resolve your debt before going to jail. For example, options such as debt forgiveness (also know as debt relief) or bankruptcy may help you resolve this debt in a way that keep you out of jail and resolves the unpaid debt in an inexpensive way.

Take the debt forgiveness and other options calculator below to estimate the cost and duration of options to resolve your debt and keep you out of jail.

How To Protect Yourself From Going to Jail

So it seems you may not be thrown in jail simply for owing a debt. Unfortunately, there are still ways that you can end up in jail because of your finances. With this in mind, what can you do to protect yourself? Here are just a few ways:

Attend All Hearings

Attending the hearing can help ensure you are not found in contempt of court by not appearing. This is the first step you should take in protecting yourself. Here are a few tips:

  • Make it a priority to attend any court hearing or court examination you are made aware of. 
  • Consider checking in frequently with the court to see if there is a date that you might not be aware of. 
  • Ask off of work long in advance. You don't want to be stuck between losing your job or potentially going to jail. 
  • Arrive at the courtroom EARLIER than your slotted time. This ensures you have plenty of time to get to the assigned spot. 
  • Have someone come with you that can testify to your presence at the hearings. 

Keep All Evidence 

Make sure you are keeping a record of EVERYTHING you do in preparation for your hearing. This can include:

  • A denied time-off request
  • Requesting to reschedule the court hearing date
  • Meetings with lawyers to get quotes
  • Calls or exchanges with the creditor (especially if concerning figuring out a deal)
  • Payments that you have made
  • Hardships that inhibit your ability to pay
  • Anything the court may find relevant to your case

Get Help!

Make sure you are reaching out to someone that can help you through this process! Talk to lawyers, counselors, and financial planners. This is not something you want to go through alone. If you would like to talk to someone, give our team at Ascend a call. We provide honest, unbiased information that can help you determine what to do next when facing unpaid bills.