WomensLaw serves and supports all survivors, no matter their sex or gender.

Preparing for Court

Court System Basics

Is there a time limit on how long after an incident I am able to file for help in court?

You can only bring most causes of action for money damages or breach of contract within a certain amount of time after the incident occurred because of statutes of limitation. A statute of limitation is a time limit that applies to certain types of court cases. Many causes of action will have different time limits based on the laws of the state. It is important to know what your legal claim is and how long you have to bring it. State laws are largely available online and so you may be able to find the time limit by searching for your type of case, your state, and “statute of limitations.” However, statutes of limitations do not apply to all cases. For example, statutes of limitations do not apply to a custody case or a divorce – you can likely file those petitions at any time.

If you do not file your case within the specific time limit set out in the statute of limitations, you may lose the right to file the case. If you file after the statute of limitations expires, the judge might have to dismiss the case. For example, your state may have a statute of limitations of one year in cases where someone intentionally physically harms another person. Therefore, if someone harmed you in January of 2015, and then you tried to file your court case in January of 2018, it might be too late and the judge may dismiss your case.

As with most legal concepts, there can be exceptions and other ways that a case may still be valid even after the time limit (statute of limitations) has expired. For example, some states will suspend (toll) the statute of limitations while the abuser is in prison or in another state; or for victims of childhood sexual abuse, some state laws say that the statute of limitations does not begin until the victim reaches age 18 or 21. However, this can be complicated. If you have a claim that you want to file in court and you believe the statute of limitations has expired, you will want to try to discuss this with an attorney to see if an exception applies in your case. If you file and the case is dismissed because of the statute of limitations, and you later learn that there may have been an exception, you might not be allowed to bring the case again. You can go to our Finding a Lawyer page for legal referrals.