If you only take a single credit maxim to heart, it should be to always pay your bills on time. A single late payment can drop an excellent credit score (750 and above) by over 100 points. It will stay on your credit report for the next seven years, and it can make it difficult for you to get loans or secure an affordable interest rate.

But what happens if you make a single honest mistake, or you have an emergency that affects your ability to pay? Depending on your relationship with the creditor, you may be able to get the late payment removed from your credit report. It isn't always possible, but it's worth a try, especially if you've always paid on time in the past. Here are a few things you can do to improve your odds of getting the late payment wiped from your credit report.

Mature man sitting at computer looking frustrated

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First steps

If you know you've missed a payment, your first step should be to check your credit reports to see if your creditor reported it. It won't appear unless it's at least 30 days past due, and some accounts may not report it unless it's at least 60 days past due. If you've always paid your bill on time in the past, your creditor may give you the benefit of the doubt and not report the missed payment at all.

If you notice any late payments on your report for accounts you don't recognize, then you may be the victim of identity theft. Place a fraud alert on your credit report and contact the credit bureau and the financial institution immediately. It may take a couple of weeks to sort out, but the credit bureaus are legally required to fix any errors on your credit report, so you shouldn't have too much trouble getting these late payments removed.

Request a goodwill adjustment

If you've been a loyal customer for many years and this is your first late payment, your creditor may be willing to forgive your mistake and remove the late payment from your credit report. This is called a goodwill adjustment. You can contact the creditor by phone to request one, but you may have better luck by writing out a formal letter.

This letter gives you the opportunity to explain why your payment was late. If you have any proof that backs up your claims -- a copy of a medical bill for an unexpected expense, for example -- it's a good idea to include this as well. The more proof you have that your missed payment was truly a one-time occurrence, the more likely your creditor is to remove it. Send the letter via certified mail so that you'll know when the letter is delivered.

Whether you're requesting a goodwill adjustment by phone or by mail, it's important to be polite. Remember, your creditor doesn't have to remove the late payment from your record if it's accurate, and they're less likely to do so if you come across as angry and combative.

Negotiate

If your creditor refuses to offer you a goodwill adjustment based on your previous payment history alone, you may have to offer the company something in return. If the debt is still outstanding, you can agree to pay the full balance off at once. Or you could try offering to sign up for auto-pay to ensure you don't miss any payments in the future. Make sure you get a copy of any agreement you've made with the lender in writing so you can refer back to it later.

If you've tried all of this and your creditor still won't budge, you may just have to accept that the late payment is going to stay on your report. All you can do from there is make sure all your successive payments are on time and do what you can to improve your credit score, including using less than 30% of your available credit and maintaining a good mix of credit accounts.

Over time, that late payment will affect your score less and less as your more recent payment history takes precedence, and after seven years, it will be as if it never happened.

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