Collecting on a Debt

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This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Robert Rogers, Hamilton Duncan, and Adam Roberts, Barrister & Solicitor in January 2020.

No one enjoys it when they’re owed money and don’t get paid. Learn the options available to you when collecting on a debt, and the steps to deal with problems.

What you should know

You have options to collect on a debt

To collect on a debt, you can:

  • try to collect yourself
  • hire a collection agency
  • hire a lawyer to collect the debt for you

Collection agencies typically charge between 25% and 50% of the amount of the debt they recover.

Lawyers generally charge a flat hourly rate. But they may also work for a “contingency fee.” This means they get a percentage of whatever they recover. So if they don’t collect anything, you don’t pay. But you may still be on the hook for any expenses.

You can’t take the debtor’s property

Whatever approach you decide on, you can’t take the debtor’s property — except through legal action. If you sue the debtor and get a judgment in your favour, you may be able to take their property as repayment. We explain this elsewhere. See our information on repossessing property.

Nor can you harass the debtor. For example, you can’t use threatening, profane, or intimidating language. We cover this in some detail in our information on debt collectors. Here's a link to that information.

There’s a time limit to sue to collect a debt

In BC, there’s a basic limitation period of two years for starting a legal action. You can’t start a lawsuit more than two years after the claim is “discovered.” If the debtor hasn’t made a payment or acknowledged the debt in more than two years, you may be too late to collect.

If the time limit is approaching on a debt owed to you, consider starting legal action right away. That way, you’ll keep your right to collect. If you aren’t sure about the time limit, consider getting legal advice.

Work out the problem

If you run into problems collecting on a debt, there are steps you can take.

Step 1. Decide on a course of action

Collecting debts can be a pain. As a first step, ask yourself if it’s worth the effort. For example, maybe the debt is very small. Or the debtor is unlikely to be able to repay anything. In either case, it may cost you more time and money to collect than the debt is worth.

Step 2. Collect information on the debt

You should gather information and documents relating to the debt. These include:

  • the name and contact information of the debtor and any other person or company responsible for paying the debt
  • how and when the debt arose
  • the ability of the debtor to pay
  • the reason the debt hasn’t been paid, if you know

The information and documents will help you collect the debt.

Step 3. Contact the debtor

Reach out to the debtor by phone, email or text. Remind them of the debt and ask what they can do to pay it. If the debtor agrees to pay based on a payment schedule, put the agreement in writing. Get them to date and sign it.

Step 4. Send a demand letter

A demand letter is a letter insisting on payment. In it, you can offer payment options that are acceptable to you. For example, payment by credit card or e-transfer.

Your letter can’t threaten to take improper action to collect. But you can say you’re considering legal action. You can also give the debtor a time window to make payment arrangements (for example, 30 days).

A template is always a good place to start. We have a loan demand letter template.

Step 5. Consider legal action

If the debtor doesn’t pay, you may want to bring a legal action. You can sue in British Columbia if the debt arose in BC, or if the debtor lives or carries on business in BC.

Just starting a lawsuit will sometimes make the debtor pay. As well, after starting the action, you may be able to collect from the debtor’s employer and others who owe money to the debtor. We explain the concept of “garnishment” elsewhere. See our information on garnishment.

If the amount you’re trying to collect is less than $5,000, you can bring your claim to the Civil Resolution Tribunal. This is an online system designed for people to bring claims on their own. If your claim is between $5,000 and $35,000, you’d sue in Small Claims Court.

For amounts over $35,000 you'd sue in BC Supreme Court. You can also sue in Small Claims Court for up to $35,000 and forget the rest.

Who can help

Legal advice

There are options for free legal advice.

Lawyer Referral Service
Helps you connect with a lawyer for a complimentary 15-minute consult to see if you want to hire them.
Call 1-800-663-1919
Visit website
Access Pro Bono's Free Legal Advice
Volunteer lawyers provide 30 minutes of free legal advice to people with low or modest income.
Call 1-877-762-6664
Visit website
People’s Law School
See more options for free or low-cost legal help.
Visit website
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