You cannot go to jail for a civil debt, but you can for not paying child support or filing your tax return. Also, some states allow courts to give orders regarding a debtor’s examination that you must follow, or you can be locked up for contempt.  

  • Debtor’s examinations scrutinize your finances under oath 
  • You can go to jail for not paying child support 
  • You can go to prison for tax evasion, fraud, or not filing your return 

While you can’t be imprisoned for not being able to pay your debts, you can for ignoring court orders. Take any notice you receive seriously and do your best to comply. 

Can You Go to Jail for Debt: Debtor’s Examination 

Creditors can sue you to collect on past due accounts. When they get a judgment against you, the court orders actions such as wage garnishment. It can also order you to provide financial information, such as your bank account. Collectors use this information to find income and seize it.  

If an agency can’t find income and is aggressive, they may go back to the courts and file papers in order to require you to appear for a debtor’s examination. At this examination, you must answer questions under oath about your finances.  

If you don’t attend, the court may find you in civil contempt. If you don’t follow the court’s order it can send you to jail. In states that allow it, collectors use this more often now. Some creditors request exams multiple times hoping you don’t attend at some point.  In these cases, the court usually sets the bond at the same amount as the balance on the account.1  

How to Protect Yourself 

Not all states allow this practice, but debt is a serious problem no matter where you live.  If you are in financial trouble don’t ignore the problem. Get help immediately. In the case of debtor’s examinations, you can protect yourself by: 

  • Taking notices and orders seriously 
  • Attending all hearings and exams 
  • Consulting with your state attorney general’s consumer division 
  • Filing bankruptcy 

This practice abuses the system by exploiting a loophole. Some state legislatures are beginning to action to address this problem. However, if you live in a state that allows it, attend all exams or you might go to prison. 

In Which States Can You Go to Jail for Debt? 

The United States abolished debtor prisons in 1833, so you cannot go to jail for civil debt. However, as we outlined earlier, collectors use loopholes to send borrowers to prison for contempt of court. In 2011 The Wall Street Journal addressed this practice, but they ambiguously said that 1/3 of the states allow this practice. Later, in 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provided a list of 44 states where they found evidence that courts allow this practice.  

There is no definitive list, but the ACLU provides substantial evidence that some courts in almost every state do this. Therefore, you should assume that a court may find you in civil contempt over your case. They cannot imprison you if you comply with court orders, though. So, don’t ignore any notices.2  

Can You Go to Jail for College Debt? 

College debt is an unsecured civil obligation. You can’t be imprisoned for this type of debt. In fact, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)of 1977 prohibits creditors from threatening arrest. They can sue you, though. If they do, you must comply with the court’s orders or it will have you arrested you for contempt.  

Can You Go to Jail for Child Support? 

Child support is one of two types of debt you can go to jail for. It is a court-ordered obligation, so you can be held in contempt if you don’t pay it. However, it is only to be used when the parent is able but willfully avoids the obligation to pay. The factors courts use to determine this include: 

  • How far behind the parent is with payments 
  • Income and employment history 
  • Reasons for delinquency (such as a medical issue or layoff) 

Judges understand that people in prison can’t pay, so they only use it as a last resort. Also, they only use it when they are sure the parent can pay but is shirking their responsibility. They will suspend your driver’s license, garnish your wages, fine you, and deny you a passport before they send you to jail. Many states also have diversion programs that provide job search help, education and training, and substance abuse assistance to help parents get a job instead of going to jail. 

You may also face federal charges if you owe child support and move to another state. In order to convict, the federal government must prove that you: 

  • Can pay 
  • Willfully neglected to pay 
  • Haven’t paid for at least one year 
  • Owe more than $5,000 in support 

It is a criminal misdemeanor, and you can serve up to six months if convicted. If the amount is over $10,00 or you haven’t paid for at least two years, it becomes a criminal felony. That carries a sentence of up to two years. 

Can You Go to Jail for Taxes? 

Tax is the other type of debt you can go to prison for. However, you won’t be imprisoned for mistakes or inability to pay. Fraud and evasion are the two criminal activities that land you in prison. Whether you can pay or not, you should always file a return. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has much lower penalties for people who can’t pay or make mistakes than for people who engage in criminal activity. If you are found guilty of criminal charges the sentences are significant. 

  • Tax fraud is intentionally deceiving the IRS 
  • Tax evasion is using illegal methods to avoid payment and has a maximum term of 5 years for each count 
  • Failure to file a return has a maximum term of one year for each count 
  • Aiding someone else to evade taxes has a maximum term of 5 years for each count 

If you file but make a mistake or you can’t pay, the IRS will charge fees but won’t send you to jail.  If you don’t file, they will send you to jail and charge you higher penalties. So, always file your return, even if you can’t pay.4  

Final Thoughts about Can You Go to Jail for Debt 

You cannot go to jail for civil debt, this includes unsecured loans and even taxes. However, creditors can sue you for unpaid obligations. Aggressive collectors use loopholes in the judicial system to get courts to find you in contempt. You can go to jail for that. Back child support payments can land you in jail the same way. The court orders you to pay, so if you don’t you are in violation, and you can do time. Finally, you won’t go to jail for taxes if you make a mistake or can’t pay, but you will if you fail to file, evade, or engage in fraud.  

If you get a notice form a court about your debts, don’t ignore it. That is the worst thing you can do. While you can’t go to debtor’s prison, you can be held in contempt and end up in jail anyway. 


  1. NOLO 
  2. Debt Wave 
  3. National Conference of State Legislatures 
  4. Find Law