1) The time limit varies by the source of the debt: e.g. is it based on a written contract, an oral or verbal contract, a promissory note; etc. If you resubmit your question with the kind of debt and its source, someone can answer for you.
2) The time limit, called the statute of limitations, is calculated from the time the debt was incurred. For example, suppose someone defaults on a loan; the time is calculated not from when the loan was taken out, but from when they missed a payment. There are some doctrines that can extend, or toll, the time (such as if the creditor was not and could not readonably be aware of the default or debt immediately), so if the time has just run out, there may be an opportunity for the creditor to get around the statute and still take action.
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