Statute of Limitations: Definition, Types, and Example

What Is a Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations is a law that sets the maximum amount of time that parties involved in a dispute have to initiate legal proceedings from the date of an alleged offense, whether civil or criminal. The length of time the statute allows for a victim to bring legal action against the suspected wrong-doer can vary based on the jurisdiction and the nature of the offense.

Key Takeaways

  • The statute of limitations is a law that sets the maximum amount of time that parties in a dispute have to initiate legal proceedings.
  • The length of time allowed under a statute of limitations varies depending upon the severity of the offense as well as the jurisdiction it is being disputed.
  • Cases involving severe crimes, like murder, typically have no maximum period.
  • Under international law, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide have no statute of limitations.
  • Statutes of limitations can also apply to consumer debt, which then becomes time-barred debt after the statute of limitations has passed.
  • Proponents of statutes of limitations believe they are needed because after time, important evidence may be lost and the memories of witnesses can grow foggy.
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Statute Of Limitations

Understanding a Statute of Limitations

In general, the time allowed under a statute of limitations varies depending on the nature of the offense. In most cases, statutes of limitations apply to civil cases. For example, in some states, the statute of limitations on medical malpractice claims is two years, so that means you have two years to sue for medical malpractice. If you wait so much as one day over the two-year deadline, you can no longer sue for medical malpractice.

Criminal Offenses

Criminal offenses can also have statutes of limitations; however, cases involving serious crimes, like murder, typically have no maximum period under a statute of limitations. In some states, sex offenses involving minors, or violent crimes like kidnapping or arson, have no statute of limitations.

International Law

Under international law, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide have no statute of limitations, according to the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity and Article 29 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Consumer Debt

Statutes of limitations can also apply to consumer debt because creditors have a certain amount of time in which to collect on the debt. The statute of limitations on consumer debt depends on the laws of the state in question, and the type of debt.

After the statute of limitations has passed, creditors can no longer sue to collect a time-barred debt, which means they cannot garnish your wages or put a lien against any of your personal assets, but that doesn’t mean that the consumer doesn’t owe the money. Making any payment towards a time-barred debt can restart the clock on the statute of limitations.

The statute of limitations on consumer debt typically ranges between three to six years but can be longer depending on the state, and the type of debt; whether it is an open-ended account, a written contract, an oral contract, or a promissory note.

Benefits of a Statute of Limitations

A statute of limitations is sometimes controversial due to cases where legal action cannot be brought against an offender because the maximum length of time has elapsed; however, proponents of a statute of limitations argue that, for practical reasons, it is most equitable to limit the initiation of legal proceedings to a reasonable period after the event.

As time goes on, important evidence may be lost, and the memories of witnesses can grow foggy. Legal proceedings brought under these circumstances may not be fair to all parties.

For a statute of limitations on consumer debt, the borrower benefits in that their financial situation improves in that the risk of having their wages garnished or liens on assets is no longer a burden. Their credit score may still suffer; however, after the statute of limitations of seven years, credit reports no longer show delinquent accounts.

Real-World Example

For example, on Feb. 14, 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Child Victims Act, legislation that extends the statute of limitations on child molestation. The extension gives victims more time to seek criminal charges in general and allows for a one-time 12-month litigation window for adult victims of all ages who were abused as children.

Under the law, victims can seek criminal charges against their abusers until age 28, versus the previous cutoff of age 23, and can file civil suits until age 55. The law also includes a one-year litigation window for victims of any age to file lawsuits; one of the biggest sticking points that kept the law from being approved previously.

In the past, one of the biggest opponents to the extension of the statute of limitations and inclusion of the one-year litigation window was the Catholic Church. At the time, the Republican-controlled state Senate blocked the legislation for a decade, but after a Democratic majority was voted through, the Senate and Democrat-controlled Assembly approved the legislation.

What Is the Purpose of a Statute of Limitations?

The purpose of statutes of limitations is to protect would-be defendants from unfair legal action, primarily arising from the fact that after a significant passage of time, relevant evidence may be lost, obscured, or not retrievable, and the memories of witnesses may not be as sharp.

How Long Is the U.S. Statute of Limitations?

In general, U.S. federal law has a statute of limitations of five years, unless there is a specific legal language for offenses that stretches beyond that time. For example, for capital murder, there is no statute of limitations.

How Long Before a Debt Becomes Uncollectible?

The amount of time before debt becomes uncollectible varies on the type of debt as well as the state. This typically ranges from three to six years but can be as high as 15 years.

The Bottom Line

A statute of limitations is the length of time a civil or criminal case can be brought to legal proceedings. After the statute of limitations has passed, the parties in dispute can no longer take legal action.

Statutes of limitations also apply to consumer debt, after which creditors can no longer sue borrowers for delinquent accounts. The debt is still owed; however, creditors can no longer take action, such as garnishing wages. It is still recommended that all debt be paid off as there can be other repercussions in the future.

Article Sources
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  1. Federal Trade Commission. "Debt Collection FAQs."

  2. United Nations. "Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity."

  3. International Criminal Court. "Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court."

  4. World Population Review. "Statute of Limitations on Debt by State 2022."

  5. Experian. "When Does the 7 Year Rule Begin for Delinquent Accounts?"

  6. New York State. "Governor Cuomo Signs the Child Victims Act."

  7. New York City Bar Legal Referral Service. "What Is the Child Victims Act?"

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