What is the statute of limitations for debt in Maine and how is it important to your business?
I have written a great deal on the many issues that could arise if you fail to monitor your accounts receivables diligently or if you wait too long to hire a debt collector or use the small claims court to recover money owed to you.
One of the most difficult conversations I have with small business owners is telling them that the statute of limitations has run out, and the debt is now uncollectible. The statute of limitations is the period of time you can pursue a debt owed to you. In Maine, the statute of limitations is 6 years. Why anyone would wait 6 years is beyond me, but it happens all the time.
Some people get busy or do not have the appetite for bad debt recovery. Still others may feel the effort involved is not worth the potential recovery if the person or business does not have money or assets to pay what is owed. However, just because they do not have the means today does not mean they will not have them tomorrow. If you get one payment, even a small one, before the statute is up, you restart, or “toll” the statute. Similarly, if you believe there are available assets, if you take your claim to a Maine court and are awarded a judgment, your judgment is good for 20 years. Any number of things can change in 20 years.
Of course, if you get a judgment it will not collect on its own. You have to continue to reassess the debtor and look for assets. Here is a case in point. We received files from half a dozen business owners who were all owed money by the same person. All his assets were over-encumbered, and there appeared to be no way to recover anything at all. Some of the businesses went ahead and sued the debtor, while others did nothing but wait. After a few years, the debtor received a large monetary award. Those creditors who had monetary judgments were able to immediately attach the award and recover their money. Sadly, those who had waited could recover nothing because the statute of limitations had expired.
You certainly cannot afford the time or expense to take every case to court, so it is important to choose wisely. Sometimes it is a leap of faith, or a feeling that your customer will one day have the ability to pay, and other times it is just luck.
There are also many small business owners who are unaware that they have 6 years to pursue collection of a debt. Of course, the longer you wait, the harder it may be to find the debtor, and you will pay a higher fee to the collection agency, but something is better than nothing. If you do place an older debt with a collection agency, make sure they have the ability to “skip trace”, or locate your customers, since people are increasingly mobile in today’s world.
I do not mean to recommend that you wait 6 years. To my mind, you have a problem if you have not been paid after 90 days, and you need to take action. Remember, those aging receivables sitting on your books cannot feed your family, pay your employees or grow your business. Cash flow is king, and you can control it.