Collecting a Debt (No. 250)
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Robert Rogers, Hamilton Duncan, and Adam Roberts, Barrister & Solicitor in October 2017.|
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 the situation.
Understand your legal options
What is a debt
A debt is something, typically money, that is owed or due. It may arise from a promise to repay an amount of money (for example, a loan), or an agreement to pay for goods or services. This information deals with these kinds of debts. It doesn’t deal with debts relating to rent, mortgages, or family law situations.
If someone owes you money, that person is called a debtor. You are called the creditor.
You have options to collect on a debt
To collect on a debt, you can:
- try to collect yourself,
- hire a collection agency, or
- 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 typically charge between $200 and $400 an hour, plus expenses. Some lawyers will work for a contingency fee — a percentage of what they recover. So if they don’t recover anything, you don’t have to pay for their services, but you may still have to pay expenses. If you hire a lawyer on a contingency fee, you should get a written contract outlining what you will have to pay, and when.
Neither collection agencies nor lawyers can guarantee they will recover anything from the debtor.
You can’t take the debtor’s property
Whatever approach you decide on, you can’t take the debtor’s property — except through taking legal action (this is explained below). Nor can you harass the debtor; see our information on harassment by debt collectors (no. 252) for more on this topic.
There is a time limit to sue to collect a debt
The law in BC creates a basic limitation period of two years for starting a legal action. A lawsuit cannot be brought more than two years after the “claim is discovered”. In the case of a debt, if a debtor hasn’t made a payment — or acknowledged they owe a debt — in more than two years, the creditor may be barred from bringing legal action to collect.
If the time limit is coming up soon for a debt owed to you, and you want to keep your right to collect, you should start legal action as soon as possible. If you are not sure about the time limit, get legal advice before you sue. If you start a lawsuit after the deadline, you may have to pay the debtor’s legal costs.
Deal with the problem
Step 1. Decide on a course of action
No one enjoys collecting debts. First, you should decide whether to proceed at all. If the debt is small, or if the debtor is bankrupt or unlikely to repay anything, 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 why 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 phoning, emailing or texting them. Remind the debtor of the debt and ask what they can do to pay the debt. 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 demanding payment of the debt. You may want to offer practical payment options that are acceptable to you, including payment by credit card or post-dated cheques.
The letter can’t threaten to take improper action to collect the debt. It is perfectly appropriate to say you are considering legal action. You might end your letter saying something like:
- “I intend to take legal action to collect the debt, plus interest and costs of the legal proceedings, if you don’t make satisfactory payment arrangements within [a certain window of time].”
A common window of time to give the debtor to make payment arrangements is seven to 30 days.
Step 5. Consider legal action
If the debtor does not 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 money from the debtor’s employer and others who owe money to the debtor. See our information on garnishment (no. 251).
The amount you are seeking affects the choice of court you would sue in.
If you are seeking up to $5,000, you can file a claim with the Civil Resolution Tribunal. The tribunal is an online system designed for people to represent themselves.
For amounts between $5,000 and $35,000, you would sue in Small Claims Court. Many people represent themselves in this court. It’s less expensive and less risky than going to Supreme Court. If the debtor owes you more than $35,000, you can sue in Small Claims Court for up to $35,000 and forget the rest. See our information on Small Claims Court (no. 166 to 168).
For amounts over $35,000, you would sue in BC Supreme Court.
What happens if I get a court judgment?
If you win in court and get a judgment for the debtor to pay you, you may have several ways to collect the money:
- You can question the debtor under oath about their income, assets and ability to pay.
- You can seize (that is, take) the debtor’s assets with a court order using a bailiff.
- You can register the judgment against land the debtor owns.
- You can garnish the debtor’s wages or other money owed to the debtor.
See our information on getting your judgment paid (no. 169).
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