Like any medical fee-for-service arrangement, an account at the dentist's office is a contract enforceable by law. Each state has rules governing debt lawsuits by creditors, including medical providers, and each also sets out an important statute of limitations, or SOL. The SOL creates a deadline for filing a valid lawsuit to collect a debt, but it does not limit the time a creditor has to demand payment by other means. In addition, overdue medical bills can have a damaging effect on credit scores.
Written Contract SOL
In most states, the statute of limitations on written contracts would include dental bills that resulted after the patient signs an agreement to pay any unreimbursed charges. If the laws of Washington state set six years as the SOL on written contracts, for example, the dentist or his representative would have six years from the date of the contract, or the date of the last payment, to file suit on the unpaid portion of the bill.
Although SOLs don't refer specifically to medical bills, they are broken down by different contractual arrangements, including oral and written contracts, and open-ended accounts. The SOL may vary according to the category of an overdue dental bill: Was it an oral agreement with the dentist, without any documentation of the patient's obligation for the fee? Was it a written agreement, signed by the patient, or was it a type of open-ended account that allowed the patient to access a line of credit when needed?
Tolling the SOL
If a patient makes a payment on a dental bill, the statute of limitations is "tolled," or suspended, on that account, and begins to run again from the date of the payment. Once the SOL has passed, a dentist or his attorney, or a collection agency acting on the dentist's behalf, may still file a lawsuit; it's up to the debtor/patient to raise the SOL defense and prove that the statutory time for a lawsuit has expired. A creditor also has the legal authority to continue collections actions past the SOL; the only way for a debtor to prevent letters, phone calls or other collections efforts is to file for bankruptcy, which results in an automatic stay issued by the bankruptcy court.