Debt Settlement

Debt settlement is a negotiated agreement in which a lender accepts less than the full amount owed – sometimes significantly less – to legally settle a debt. There is considerable risk to this debt relief option. It is not accepted by all lenders and can damage your credit score for seven years.

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Can I Settle a Debt for Less than I Owe?

The quick answer is: Yes! The whole goal of debt settlement to pay less than you owe and that is what all the debt settlement companies promise will happen.

The real question should be: A) How much less? B) How long is this going to take? C) Is there a price to be paid somewhere down the line?

The quick answer to those question is: Nobody knows for sure and yes, you will pay a price.

Probably a heavy price.

If you believe the advertising spin that debt settlement companies use on TV and radio, it seems possible that you will “… pay back pennies on the dollar!”

That is possible, but so is the chance you bought the winning lottery ticket last Saturday night.

There is no documented data on how much of your debt you won’t have to pay. Experts say that if all goes well, you will be lucky to have 50% of your debt excused, but it could be (and often is) less than that.

As for how long the process takes, there is enough data to say that in most cases, it takes 36-48 months. Interest on the debt accrues during that time.

So, if you have a $20,000 credit card debt, for example, and were paying the average interest rate (in 2017) of 15%, your debt would grow to between $29,000 and $32,000 in 3-4 years.

So, if you owe $30,000 and a debt settlement company gets half forgiven, you only owe $15,000.

That might sound good, until you add on the additional charges and total up a final bill. Those charges include:

  • A 25% fee for the amount of debt forgiven. If you owe $15,000 is forgiven, that means a fee of around $3,750.
  • The IRS considers any forgiven debt as income, so if you had $15,000 forgiven, you’ll pay taxes on that amount. Estimated total: $5,000.
  • Lenders will report debt settlements to the credit bureau agencies and it becomes a negative on your credit report for seven years. That lowers your credit score and raises the interest rate you will pay for future loans and credit cards.

So, when you add everything up after three years, the original debt of $20,000 could cost you about $23,750 to settle. That is $15,000 to the lender for settlement; $3,750 in fees to the company and $5,000 in taxes to the government.

And your credit report is stained for seven years.

And that’s if everything works out well!

The Debt Settlement Negotiation Process

The first step is deciding whether to hire a debt settlement company or lawyer to negotiate a settlement. You could do this yourself. The goal is to reduce significantly the amount you pay. Experience helps. So does having enough money to make a lump-sum offer. Start saving immediately.

Next, meet with the original lender, plead for mercy and ask if they’re willing to settle. If your account is more than six months overdue, the debt likely has been turned over to a collection agency, who has the opposite goal: They want to get as much money from you as they can.

It could take three years to save enough money to make an offer. Usually, you are asked to stop paying creditors and instead send monthly payments to your representative to build an account. Meanwhile, interest charges on your debt grow and your account balance grows with it.

It’s time to make an offer. Be patient. Creditors have no obligation to accept debt settlement offers. This could take months, maybe years. If the creditor accepts, get it in writing. Also, ask the creditor to send the major credit bureaus notice that the debt has been settled.

Now, see if you saved money. Debt settlement companies usually charge 15% of the amount owed or 25% of the amount saved. Lawyers could charge an hourly rate or standard fee. There also are taxes owed to the IRS on the amount forgiven. It is not a sure thing you came out ahead. .

Types of Debts Eligible for Settlement

Credit cards and medical bills are ideal for the debt settlement process because if the cardholder files for bankruptcy, the card company or medical facility could get nothing. The Federal Reserve Board says that 7.1% of credit card debt was 90 days past due in Q4 of 2016. The Fed categorizes that debt as “seriously delinquent,” which makes it eligible for debt settlement. About 26% of U.S. adults had trouble paying medical bills in 2016, which also are eligible for debt settlement.

Federal student loans are another story. It’s extremely difficult, to reach a debt settlement. If you have defaulted, the government allows a collection agency to accept a lump-sum payment under three conditions: A) You pay the balance of the loan and interest, but not the collection agency charge; B) You pay the principal plus half the unpaid interest; or C) You pay 90% of the remaining principal and interest.

Private student loans, usually issued by banks, are a better target for debt settlement than federal student loans.

Who Qualifies for Credit Card Settlement?

Credit card companies usually do not have specific guidelines. However, good candidates are usually those who can no longer afford their minimum monthly payments. Credit card settlement offers debt relief without the stigma or harm of bankruptcy.

Find out if you qualify

What if Creditors Won't Settle?

Creditors have no legal obligation to negotiate an outstanding balance on credit cards or other loans. But they can often recover more funds through debt settlements than other collection methods like hiring a collections agency or attorney.

View Alternatives to Settlement

Debt Settlement Companies

One way to resolve your credit card debt or other debt is to enlist the help of a debt settlement company. Debt resolution companies often are experienced at negotiating with creditors and may have relationships with major creditors, specifically credit card companies.

The first step in the debt settlement process is for a consumer to reach out to a reputable company that can help. These debt arbitration firms are staffed by credit counselors, people who are accredited in analyzing personal finances. They also have a keen understanding of the current marketplace, including how and why creditors will negotiate a settlement.

Once your finances are detailed, the counselor will check the totality of your debt and then draw up a settlement plan. That plan will be presented to you. It should include details about your monthly payment plan and how the settlement company profits from the transaction.

By resolving your debts, an arbitration company can earn its money in several ways. It should receive fees of a scheduled dollar amount, a percentage of the debt you want settled or an agreed-upon percentage of the amount you save through settlement.

Finding the Right Debt Resolution Company

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests you look for a number of additional features in a debt resolution company to determine its legitimacy. These features ensure that a company is fair, transparent and professional.

Creditors have no legal obligation to consider any settlement deal, so a debt resolution company cannot honestly ensure an agreement.

A good debt settlement company will:

  • Disclose all program fees and costs before you sign up for a debt resolution program
  • Have easy-to-understand written policies about its debt resolution program
  • Give you an estimate of how many months or years it will wait before making an offer to each creditor
  • Estimate its intended results, but never guarantee a specific settlement amount
  • Tell you how much money you must save up before it will begin making offers to your creditors
  • Send all resolution offers to you for your approval

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Preparing Yourself for Debt Settlement

You’ll start the process by putting away money in preparation for debt negotiations. Your settlement company will tell you the total amount you need to save in advance. You’ll make a monthly payment into a dedicated bank account for several months or years, depending on your monthly budget and anticipated amount to be resolved. The account will be in your name and should be insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). It will be overseen by a trustee or account administrator.

Negotiating Your Debt

As you build up your account, this money will be used to bargain with your creditors on your behalf. You will have the final say on the terms and how your money will be used to pay off the negotiated amount before accepting an agreement. Once those negotiations are successful, your debts will get paid off one by one.

Signing a Credit Card Settlement Agreement

After you come to an agreement on a credit card settlement, put all arrangements in writing for your records. Be sure you and your credit card company sign the agreement. At this point, the account administrator will be responsible for transferring funds from your account to pay your creditor.

Tax Obligations

Speak with a tax professional if the debt amount covered by the settlement is more than $600. If so, you likely will be required to pay income taxes on that amount because the Internal Revenue Service can consider forgiven debt as income.

How Debt Settlement Affects Your Credit

It’s important to know that your credit scores have already declined if you’re at the point of resolving your credit card debt or other debt. Although this can be stressful, your top priority should be to get out of debt and get your finances back on track.

Talk to your credit card company about whether it will report your agreement as a settlement to the credit bureaus. If so, that settlement could appear on your credit report for about seven years and may damage your credit score. Ask your credit card company to report the settlement as “paid in full” instead. Once your debts are settled and wiped away and you are keeping your financial house in order, your credit scores will move up.

Settlement & Credit Card Companies Tip

Alternatives to Debt Settlement

Don’t panic if your creditors won’t settle. You have other debt options: Credit counseling, debt management, debt consolidation, and, in extreme cases, bankruptcy.

Consolidation

In debt consolidation, a borrower takes out one big loan to pay off smaller debts, typically achieving a lower interest rate in the process. A debtor will pay one bill every month instead of several bills, but if they are unable to pay the consolidated, secured debt, there is no more wiggle room.

Learn More

Debt Management Plans

In credit counseling, agencies can set up low-interest debt management plans so that borrowers can pay off unsecured debt over time. A debt management program (DMP) reduces your monthly payments so you can eventually pay off your debt in full.

Learn More

Bankruptcy

Personal bankruptcy should always be considered the last resort — and the worst option — for anyone battling debt problems. It will negatively affect your credit, prevent or delay foreclosure on a home and lead to repossession of a car. In addition, filing for bankruptcy can be complex and costly.

Learn More

Need help choosing the best debt relief option for you?

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Author

Bill Fay
Staff Writer

Bill Fay is a journalism veteran with a nearly four-decade career in reporting and writing for daily newspapers, magazines and public officials. His focus at Debt.org is on frugal living, veterans' finances, retirement and tax advice. Bill can be reached at bfay@debt.org.

Sources

  1. NA, (2017, February 16) household Debt Increases Substantially, Approaching Previous Peak. Retrieved from https://www.newyorkfed.org/newsevents/news/research/2017/rp170216
  2. Hamel, L., Norton, M., Pollitz, K., Levitt, L. (2016, January 5) the Burden of Medical Debt: Results from the Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times Medical Bills Survey. Retrieved from http://kff.org/report-section/the-burden-of-medical-debt-section-1-who-has-medical-bill-problems-and-what-are-the-contributing-factors/
  3. Federal Trade Commission (2010). Settling Your Credit Card Debts. Retrieved from http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre02.pdf
  4. Weston, L. (2010). When debt settlement makes sense. MSN Money. Retrieved from http://money.msn.com/credit-and-debt/when-debt-settlement-makes-sense-weston.aspx
  5. Federal Trade Commission (2011). Knee Deep in Debt. Retrieved from http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre19.pdf
  6. Freedom Debt Relief (2011). FDR Training Manual.
  7. Debt Settlement Industry Standards Fact Sheet (2008) Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/public_comments/debt-settlement-industry-public-workshop-536796-00027/536796-00027.pdf
  8. The Association Of Settlement Companies (Tasc) Study On The Debt Settlement Industry (2007) Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/public_comments/debt-settlement-industry-public-workshop-536796-00014/536796-00014.pdf
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