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Getting Out of Debt

My Unpaid Debt Still Haunts Me

Sometimes it doesn't make much sense to pay the money you owe.

Christina Pridgen struggled with debt as she went through a divorce and began a new life for herself and her two kids. She admits she never paid $14,000 in joint credit-card debt incurred while she was married. Collectors have pretty much stopped bugging her, but she wonders: If she could find the resources to pay off the debt, would her credit rating be resurrected? "I had an excellent credit history," says Pridgen, 34, a nursing student who lives near Charlotte, N.C. "I'd like to start over."

Believe it or not, paying back the $14,000 would do little to repair Pridgen's credit history. And the black marks on her credit report will disappear in 18 months, anyway. Under federal law, a report of a bad debt must be removed seven and a half years after the first missed payment. If the creditors had sued and won a judgment against Pridgen, they'd have had at least ten years to collect. But that didn't happen -- probably because of the relatively small amounts involved with each card issuer. The statute of limitations for such suits (three years in North Carolina, but as many as six elsewhere) has passed.

There's no limit on how long debt collectors can try to collect (see Debt Police Who Go Too Far," Nov.). For now, Pridgen is best off using her limited resources to finish her education and care for her kids. She can always try to cut a deal to clear the debt -- and her conscience -- when she's out of school, working full-time.

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