Last Updated: May 19, 2022. Report error / Make suggestion

More information about debt and re-entry can be found in the Washington Re-Entry Guide.

What should I do when I am first released to manage my debt?

Once you are released, you may choose to obtain a copy of your credit report and contact all lenders to determine how much you owe.

You are entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the four major reporting agencies, which you can order at AnnualCreditReport.com.

AnnualCreditReport.com is the only free credit reporting service, so be careful around other sites that claim to provide free reporting.

Which debts should I check on that may be outstanding?

If you do not have enough money to pay all of your debts, you may need to decide which ones to pay first. Consider the following different areas of debt and potential consequences of not paying that debt as you are making the decision:

  • Family Necessities (food, essential medical expenses, housing and essential utilities)
    • Failing to pay your housing bills, including rent, mortgage, real estate taxes and insurance may result in the loss of your home.
  • Legal Financial Obligations (“LFOs”)
    • Failing to pay your LFOs may result in a court order garnishing a portion of your paycheck or, if a court makes a determination that the failure to pay was willful, then the court may sentence you to jail time. .
  • Car Loans and Insurance (if you need a car to get to and from work)
    • A missed car loan payment can result in your car being taken.
    • If you are in an accident and do not have insurance, your license can be suspended.
  • Child Support
    • Failing to pay child support can result in jail time, a reduction of your tax refund, wages or government benefits and suspension of your driver’s license.
    • If you cannot afford the full amount of child support owed, you may arrange to make a partial payment and contact the Division of Child Support or a lawyer to see if the payment amount can be reduced.
  • Student Loans
    • Failing to pay back your federal student loans can result in your tax refund, wages or government benefits being reduced.
    • If you cannot afford to pay your student loans, contact a lawyer or the student borrower assistance website to see if you can get your loan payments reduced.
  • Income Tax
    • You must file a federal tax return even if you cannot afford to pay the amount due.
    • Contact a lawyer to determine if you can get your tax debt put on hold based on your income.
  • Hospital and Medical Bills
    • If you cannot pay your hospital bills because of your low income, ask the hospital if you are eligible to have Charity Care cover all or part of your bills.
  • Credit Cards
    • Pay your credit card bills only after you have paid all of your other bills.
    • A credit card company can file a lawsuit for nonpayment, but you will not be arrested for not paying your credit card bills.
    • Not paying your credit card bills will hurt your credit score, which can make it harder to get an apartment, job or loan.

What can I do if I do not owe the debt the collection agency is claiming?

If you do not agree with the debt a collection agency is claiming you owe, you must notify the collection agency in writing within 30 days of receiving their initial notice.

Are there any debts that I do not have to pay back?

A debt that you have not made a payment on in at least six years is a “stale debt.” Collection agencies can try to collect on the debt, but you have a legal defense when the debt is too old and you do not have to pay it.

What should I do if I get sued for not paying my debts?

If someone serves you with notice saying you are being sued for not paying you debts, you must answer within 20 days. Do not ignore the papers, even if you think you do not owe money to the person suing you. If you do not respond, the court will rule against you and give the other party a judgment for everything they are asking for. The Northwest Justice Project has an online tool to help you draft your answer.

What should I do if a creditor or collection agency gets a court judgment against me?

If there is a court judgment against you for a debt, move that debt to the top of your payment list. Also consider reaching out to the creditor or its attorney to set up a payment plan.

What can I do if a collection agency is harassing me?

Keep detailed records of all of your communications with collection agencies because you can sue a collection agency that has harassed or misled you. Examples of unlawful conduct include:

  • The collector calls at “unreasonable” hours (9 p.m.- 8 a.m. under federal law and 9 p.m.- 7:30 a.m. under state law);
  • The collector threatens illegal action, such as threatening to take money from your Social Security check or threatening arrest or jail time;
  • The collector communicates with you or someone in your household in a harassing, intimidating, threatening or embarrassing way;
  • The collector calls you or your spouse more than three times/week;
  • The collector send notices that intentionally look like government documents or emergency messages.

Where can I get free legal help?

Coordinated Legal Education, Advice and Referral (CLEAR) is a centralized intake, advice and referral service for low-income people seeking free legal assistance. Contact CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014 or online.

How can I repair my credit?

Fiscal Tiger’sHow to Repair Your Credit After Getting Released From Prison guideis a three part guide meant to help individuals understand how their incarceration might have in-directly damaged their credit score, as well as how to begin to improve their credit score.


The information on this website is not legal advice. You should not and are not authorized to rely on this website as a source of legal advice. While Civil Survival goes to great lengths to make sure the information on the website is accurate, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of this information and are not responsible for any consequences that may result from the use of this website. We recommend that you consult with an attorney for assurance that the information on the website and your interpretation of it are appropriate for your situation.

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