Can I go to jail for not paying a debt?

In Virginia, you can't be sent to jail for not paying a debt, in most cases. But keep reading because sometimes you can.

Don't be tricked by debt collectors.

Normal, everyday debts that you incur to purchase things or services – debts such as medical bills, credit card bills, unpaid rent, utilities, payday loans, vehicle loans, and mortgages - cannot land a person in jail if they are not paid.

If a debt collector tells that they will “put you in jail” if you don’t pay these kinds of debts, they are not telling you the truth. In fact, they are trying to confuse and scare you into paying the debt.

How else can debt collectors confuse and scare you?

They sometimes say that if you don’t pay them, they will “have a warrant issued,” or “have a warrant served on you” by a sheriff. Many people automatically think this means that a sheriff is going to serve them with a criminal arrest warrant – but this is NOT the case.

What's a Warrant in Debt?

In Virginia, legal proceedings for debts less than $25,000 are initiated by a document called a “Warrant in Debt” and are delivered to the debtor by the local sheriff. This is what debt collectors are referring to if they say they will have a “warrant” served on you.

Can they do this? Definitely – but this type of “warrant” will not land you in jail for not paying a debt. It is basically just a summons for you to go to court to tell the judge whether or not you owe the debt listed on the warrant. It is NOT a criminal warrant for your arrest.

What should you do if you receive a Warrant in Debt?

That depends on whether you dispute that you owe the debt or not. A Warrant in Debt will have a court date on it.

I dispute the debt

If you dispute that you owe the debt to the creditor, you can go to court on the court date and tell the Judge that you dispute the debt. The Judge will set another date in the future for a trial so you and the debtor can present evidence and testimony about it in front of the Judge.

I do not dispute the debt

On the other hand, if you do NOT dispute that you owe the debt listed on the Warrant in Debt, you have two choices:

  1. go to court on the date listed on the Warrant in Debt
  2. or choose not to go to court.

I choose to go to court

If you go to court, you will tell the judge that you do not dispute the debt. The Judge will award the creditor a judgment that allows the creditor to start the collection of the debt from you (e.g., wage garnishment).

I choose Not to go to court

If you decide not to go to court on the day listed on the Warrant in Debt, the Judge will automatically assume that you agree that you owe the debt, and will award the creditor a judgment that allows the creditor to start the collection of the debt from you (e.g., wage garnishment). 

Either Way

In either case:

  • you will owe the judgment.
  • the Warrant in Debt is NOT a warrant for your arrest

Sometimes you CAN go to jail in Virgina

There are a number of debts or debt-related proceedings in Virginia that actually CAN land you in jail. These include (but may not be limited to):

  • failing to pay child support
  • failing to pay taxes
  • writing a bad check
  • and failing to appear in court when served with a “Summons to Answer Interrogatories” after the court rules that you owe a debt

When in doubt, call a bankruptcy lawyer in your area

In the end, be careful!

Debt collectors will try to scare you into paying the debt.

If you do get served with legal papers and are unsure about what they say and mean, set up an appointment with a local lawyer to show them the papers and find out what you need to do.

Free consultations in Charlottesville and Culpeper

If you aren't sure a debt collector’s statements are legitimate and live in the Charlottesville or Culpeper area, contact us today for a FREE CONSULTATION with experienced Virginia bankruptcy lawyer, Marshall Slayton.


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