Debt Consolidation vs. Bankruptcy – Which Option is Better?

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Updated on Monday, September 17, 2018

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If you feel as if you are drowning in your debts, you may already be considering options for assistance, like one of several debt consolidation methods or filing for bankruptcy. The assistance you ultimately turn to will heavily depend on the severity of your financial situation. If you’re choosing between debt consolidation and bankruptcy, you are comparing options that vary greatly in cost, complexity and risk.

“Every possible option should be thoroughly researched, and no quick decisions should be made,” said Martin Lynch, director of education at Cambridge Credit Counseling in Agawam, Mass. “It usually takes a long time to get into debt trouble, and the process to unwind those debts should also involve patience and consideration before you commit to any option.”

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What is debt consolidation and how does it work?

  • Personal loans
  • Balance transfer credit cards
  • Home equity loans
  • Home equity lines of credit

When you consolidate debts, you essentially roll multiple debts into one. A new loan or line of credit is used to pay off previous debts, leaving you to manage one monthly payment. Popular debt consolidation products include personal loans, balance transfer credit cards, home equity loans and home equity lines of credit.

Ideally, the consolidation loan will have more favorable terms than existing debts, like a lower interest rate or monthly payment. In addition, consolidating debts could help reduce the number of bills a borrower is responsible for keeping up with.

What is bankruptcy and how does it work?

  • Chapter 7
  • Chapter 13

Bankruptcy is a federal protection that helps individuals and businesses who cannot afford to repay their debts. Bankruptcy can eliminate consumer debts and may help debtors repay what they can through court-approved debt repayment plans. The law allows individuals to file for either Chapter 7 (liquidation) or Chapter 13 (repayment) bankruptcy.

Chapter 7 bankruptcy is referred to as liquidation bankruptcy because a borrower may have to sell some of their assets to pay off their debts. In Chapter 7, any of the borrower’s assets that are not exempt from sale under law may be sold by a court-appointed trustee or turned over to creditors to settle debts. Most other debts are discharged, with some exceptions (more on that in a minute).

In a Chapter 13 filing, a court approves a repayment plan that lets the borrower repay their creditors over three to five years. Any remaining amount owed on the debts will be discharged after all payments are made under the repayment plan.

Some debts, like most student loans, most tax obligations, child support, alimony and court and criminal fines are not eligible for discharge in bankruptcy.

Comparing debt consolidation and bankruptcy

Here’s a comparison of debt consolidation and bankruptcy.

Qualifications

Debt consolidation

  • A FICO credit score of at least 600
  • A low debt to income ratio below 40%
  • No recent bankruptcies

Bankruptcy

Chapter 7
You must complete credit counseling within the six months prior to filing for bankruptcy, as well as a post-bankruptcy debtor education course for debts to be discharged.

You must also pass a “means test” for eligibility:

  • Your monthly income must be below the median state income, based on family size.
  • Your disposable income isn’t enough to satisfy your debt obligations.

Chapter 13
You must complete credit counseling within the six months prior to filing for bankruptcy, as well as a post-bankruptcy debtor education course for debts to be discharged.

  • Secured debt (e.g. mortgages and auto loans) must not be worth more than $1,184,200 total
  • Unsecured debt (e.g. credit cards and medical bills) must not exceed $394,725

What debts qualify?

Debt consolidation

Existing debts such as:

  • Credit cards
  • Medical bills
  • Utility bills
  • Payday loans
  • Student loans
  • Taxes
  • Bills in collection

Bankruptcy

Chapter 7
A bankruptcy trustee or bankruptcy court liquidates nonexempt assets sufficient to repay creditors.

Chapter 7 bankruptcy may result in discharge of the following existing debt:

  • Credit cards
  • Personal loans
  • Medical bills
  • Utility bills
  • Payday loans
  • Bills in collection
  • Obligations under leases and contracts
  • Promissory notes

Certain items do not count toward your assets, including:

  • household goods
  • wedding rings
  • money in retirement accounts
  • medical supplies

Some assets are exempt under federal and state law, and exemptions vary by state. Federal bankruptcy law allows you to keep up to $15,000 of home equity and $2,400 of vehicle equity, so your home, vehicle and other assets could be protected under state or federal exemptions. But exemptions aren’t automatic — talk to a bankruptcy attorney in your area to understand what you’re at risk of losing.

Chapter 13
You can file for Chapter 13 if you have less than $394,725 in unsecured debts like credit cards and personal loans and less than $1,184,200 in secured debts like a mortgage or auto loan. Filing Chapter 13 may stop home foreclosures, though you must make timely mortgage payments during the Chapter 13 plan. You can also prevent repossession of some assets by restructuring secured-debt payments within the Chapter 13 repayment plan.

Chapter 13 bankruptcy may result in discharge of the following existing debt:

  • Credit cards
  • Medical bills
  • Utility bills
  • Payday loans
  • Student loans
  • Taxes
  • Bills in collection

A Chapter 13 bankruptcy discharge does not eliminate long-term obligations like a home mortgage. You will continue to pay the remainder of the obligation after the repayment plan ends.

Effect on credit score

Debt consolidation

You may see your credit score drop slightly, because applying for new credit generates a hard inquiry on your credit report and can shave a few points off your score.

However, you can expect your credit score to improve as you make on-time payments on your new loan.

Your credit score might actually improve in the short term if you pay off revolving debts (like credit cards) but keep the accounts open. Closing accounts lowers your credit limit, raising your credit utilization ratio — a major factor in credit scores — and in turn lowering your credit score. Not paying off debt or adding additional debt can also impact you negatively.

Bankruptcy

A study by LendingTree, the parent company of MagnifyMoney, found 43% of people with a bankruptcy on their credit file have a credit score of 640 or higher within a year of the bankruptcy, and that figure goes up to 65% two years post-filing — but you should expect your credit score to drop after filing for bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy is considered a very negative event and will cause serious damage to a filer’s credit score for as long as it remains on the credit report.

A Chapter 7 filing stays on your credit report for 10 years, while a Chapter 13 filing should fall off your report after 7 years.

The older negative information is, the less impact it will have on your credit score.

You may see accounts included in the bankruptcy filing removed from the report before the bankruptcy is removed. Any individual account that was included in the bankruptcy will be removed 7 years from its delinquency date.

The amount your score falls will vary depending on how many accounts are part of the bankruptcy and whether they were delinquent or charged off. Your credit score prior to bankruptcy also plays a factor in this — borrowers with higher credit scores prior to filing for bankruptcy can expect to see larger drops in credit score.

How it appears on your credit report

Debt consolidation

Balances on consolidated debts will decrease or be marked as paid off, and a new loan will be added to your credit report.

Bankruptcy

Chapter 7
Bankruptcy will drop off your credit report 10 years from the filing date. Accounts included in the bankruptcy will be removed 7 years from their delinquency dates.

Chapter 13
Bankruptcy will drop off your credit report after 7 years from the filing date. Accounts included in the bankruptcy will be removed 7 years from their delinquency dates.

Length of process

Debt consolidation

The time frame varies from several months to several years, based on the term of the debt consolidation loan.

Bankruptcy

Chapter 7
The entire process may take up to six months to complete.

Chapter 13
The legal process may take several months; the repayment period will last three to five years.

Cost

Debt consolidation

You will have to pay interest on your new loan, and rates vary widely by loan type.

Some personal loans may charge fees such as:

  • Loan origination fee
  • Prepayment fee
  • Loan credit insurance

Credit card companies may charge a fee to make a balance transfer between credit cards. A 3% balance transfer fee is common. With a balance transfer credit card, you may be able to transfer credit card debt to a card with a 0% APR on balance transfers for a limited time, but if you don’t pay off the balance during the 0% APR intro period, your debt may begin to accrue interest.

There may be fees associated with a HELOC or home equity loan such as:

  • An appraisal fee, to gauge the current value of the property
  • Application costs
  • Processing fees
  • Miscellaneous lender fees
  • Cancellation fee
  • Inactivity fee

Bankruptcy

Chapter 7

  • Filing fee: $245
  • Administrative fee: $75
  • Trustee fee: $15
  • Attorney: varies
  • Pre- and post-bankruptcy credit counseling/debtor education courses: about $50-$100 each

Chapter 13

  • Filing fee: $235
  • Administrative fee: $75
  • Convert Chapter 13 to Chapter 7: $25
  • Attorney: varies
  • Pre- and post-bankruptcy credit counseling/debtor education courses: about $50-$100 each

Generally, interest is not paid on unsecured debts. Interest on secured debts are paid through the Chapter 13 plan. How bankruptcy courts determine that rate varies by state, but the Supreme Court case Till v. SCS Credit Corp. provided guidance that the rate can be calculated as the prime rate plus 1.5%.

Tax consequences

Debt consolidation

None.

Bankruptcy

If you are owed a tax refund, the money may be delayed or the funds may be turned over to trustee.

Discharged debt is taxable as income, so if you have debts discharged you may need to set aside funds to pay the tax when the time comes.

Benefits

Debt consolidation

  • Avoid severe credit damage.
  • Improve your credit score over time.
  • There’s no risk of losing personal property with a personal loan or balance transfer credit card.
  • It may be easier to qualify for than bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy

Chapter 7

  • You can have most unsecured and secured debts discharged quickly, within 4 to 6 months.
  • You may not have to pay back the entire amount of what you owe.
  • By law, collections efforts have to stop.
  • Under state and federal law, you may be allowed to keep certain exempt property.

Chapter 13

  • You can pay back some of what you owe to creditors over 3 to 5 years.
  • Your remaining debts are discharged after completing the 3- to 5-year repayment plan.
  • You may not have to pay back the entire amount of what you owe.
  • Make one installment payment to a trustee, instead of managing multiple debts.
  • Save property like a house headed to foreclosure or vehicle about to be repossessed.
  • Save assets that would otherwise be sold in a Chapter 7 filing.
  • It may allow you to catch up on delinquent mortgage payments over time.
  • By law, collections efforts have to stop.
  • It protects cosigners from liability on consumer debts.
  • It may lower the monthly payment on secured debts.

Risks

Debt consolidation

Bankruptcy

Chapter 7

  • Because of the credit score damage caused by bankruptcy, you risk not being able to qualify for credit when you need it, particularly in the first few years after declaring bankruptcy.
  • You risk losing assets not protected by exemption (consult with an expert about what’s applicable for exemption in your state).
  • You must wait 2 years to take out an FHA mortgage and 4 years for a conventional mortgage.
  • You may face issues renewing professional licensing.
  • Cosigners are not protected in a Chapter 7 filing, so creditors can still go after them and can sue for payment.

Chapter 13

  • Because of the credit score damage caused by bankruptcy, you risk not being able to qualify for credit when you need it, particularly in the first few years after declaring bankruptcy.
  • You must wait 2 years to take out an FHA mortgage and 4 years for a conventional mortgage.
  • You may face issues renewing professional licensing.

Life after debt consolidation or bankruptcy

Be prepared to make some life changes after consolidating your debts or declaring bankruptcy.

Debt consolidation

After you’ve consolidated your debt, your focus should be on paying it off. If you’ve consolidated credit card debts, try to not rack up debt again on the credit cards.

You can build your credit score by adding positive information to your credit report. Paying your bills in full and on time can help both keep your credit utilization low and establish a record of on-time payment history. Together, those factors comprise 65% of your FICO score. Your utilization is the overall percentage you use of your available revolving credit, and experts recommend keeping that figure below 30%. Your on-time payment history makes up 35% of your credit report and demonstrates you can manage your debt payments.

Making and following a budget can help prevent you from piling up more debt. It would be wise to start saving some amount of money in an emergency fund, as it may keep you from turning to high-cost debt when you encounter unexpected costs. Experts recommend you save enough to cover three to six months’ worth of fixed expenses.

Bankruptcy

Having the bankruptcy on your credit report will weigh down your credit score for a while, but the process also gives you a fresh start.

“Filing for bankruptcy can devastate a score, but that’s not the focus of the consumer’s decision at that point — discharging debt is,” said Lynch. He adds most filers have at least some credit offers soon after filing, although they may not receive the best rates.

You can rebuild your score over time by adding positive information to your credit history, like on-time payments, and using very little of your available credit. If you need an idea of where and how to start rebuilding, LendingTree has tips on rebuilding your credit after filing bankruptcy, here.

The same advice as debt consolidation stands as far as managing your cash: You should create and follow a budget, as well as establish an emergency fund so that you don’t find yourself in a similar situation a few years down the road.

How to decide which option is better

When debt consolidation makes sense over bankruptcy

Debt consolidation may be a more attractive option compared to bankruptcy if you have a reasonably good credit score and can pinpoint the root of why you got into debt in the first place. If it was a one-off incident like a job loss or medical issue that forced you to rack up debt, or you’ve recently kicked poor spending habits that got you into debt, you may be able to use a debt consolidation loan to finally get back on track.

A good credit score will help you qualify for a debt consolidation loan at a lower interest rate, making it less expensive overall for you to pay off your debts. The better your credit score, the more debt consolidation options you have.

But if you haven’t resolved the issue that got you into debt in the first place, debt consolidation can be risky.

When bankruptcy makes sense over debt consolidation

Lynch recommended speaking with a credit counselor or a bankruptcy attorney to evaluate your options if the amount of unsecured debt you’re responsible for exceeds about 20% of your income. But the decision to file bankruptcy ultimately comes down to an individual’s capacity for disciplined repayment.

“The best candidates for bankruptcy are those consumers who know what the consequences will be, know what property they may stand to lose — in the case of a Chapter 7 filer — and have done their best to determine what the 3 to 5 years of repayment would be like if they were to file Chapter 13,” said Lynch.

Consider your debts

Jeffrey Arevalo, an financial wellness expert at Greenpath Financial Wellness, recommended you consider your income, the types of debt you have and your assets in deciding if bankruptcy is right for you — and, if so, which type of bankruptcy you would need to file.

According to Arevalo, you should consider whether bankruptcy can help you with the kind of debt you’re dealing with in the first place; there are some debts, including student loans, child support, alimony and tax debts, that won’t be eligible for discharge in either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 filing.

Consider your assets

The assets you own may affect whether or not you opt for bankruptcy over debt consolidation, too. You may risk losing certain assets like secondary residence properties, valuable vehicles and other assets that aren’t exempt for sale under applicable state and federal law to pay off your debts if you file Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The rules vary by state, so check first to see what you’d risk losing if you file for Chapter 7.

On the other hand, a benefit of filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy is that it gives you an opportunity to save your home from foreclosure or a car from repossession, if that’s a risk you’re facing.

Eligibility

Finally, filing would depend on whether or not you are eligible for bankruptcy.

“Based on bankruptcy guidelines in your state, if you make too much or too little of income it will determine whether or not you have the ability or inability to repay your debt,” said Arevalo.

To be eligible for Chapter 13 bankruptcy you must first:

  1. Have regular income
  2. The amount of secured debt (like a mortgage or auto loan) cannot be more than $1,184,200, and the amount of unsecured debt (like medical bills or credit card debt) cannot exceed $394,725

To be eligible for Chapter 7 bankruptcy you must prove you cannot afford your debt payments. To do so you must:

  1. Prove your monthly income is less than the median income in your state for your family size
  2. If you don’t pass the first requirement, the court will use another complex calculation to see whether your disposable income is enough to satisfy your debt obligations

Student loans

Filing for either type of bankruptcy won’t result in your student loans being discharged in most cases, according to the experts.

“Contrary to popular belief, both federal and private student loans can be discharged in bankruptcy, but the standards applied most often — the so-called ‘Brunner test’ — are difficult for many people to satisfy,” said Lynch.

To have student loans discharged, you have to file an adversary proceeding, a lawsuit filed in bankruptcy court. That’s when you have to pass what’s commonly referred to as the Brunner Test, meaning you must prove repayment would “impose undue hardship on you and your dependents.”

The following factors determine undue hardship:

  • Repaying the loan would not allow you to maintain a minimal living standard.
  • Evidence shows that the hardship will likely continue throughout much of the loan’s repayment period.
  • Good faith efforts were made towards loan payment prior to the bankruptcy filing.

The chances of any individual borrower passing the test are slim, according to John Colwell, president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

“You can sue and try to prove a hardship discharge in bankruptcy but the burden of proof on the debtor is very high,” Colwell said. On top of that, Colwell told MagnifyMoney, the process is an additional expense for an already cash-strapped debtor, who would have to pay a lawyer to file the lawsuit and combat an aggressive opposition from the student loan companies.

In February 2018, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would review the undue hardship definition, but, according to Lynch, “it’s even debatable whether that would have any real effect, as actual changes would have to come via Congress.”

Statute of limitations
Borrowers who have private student loans should remember private loans are generally subject to a state’s statute of limitations, Lynch added.

“If the statute has expired, there may be no need to include the loans in a bankruptcy filing,” said Lynch. He advised anyone considering bankruptcy with private loans to first speak with an experienced bankruptcy attorney who has had success with discharging student loans.

Repayment options
Student loans likely won’t be discharged in either type of bankruptcy. However, if you opt to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the repayment plan may reduce your payment to something more manageable for your budget — or you may have no payment at all for three to five years as you pay down your debts.

If you have federal student loans and are struggling to make payments, it may be beneficial to contact your loan servicer and ask about forbearance, deferment or your eligibility for one of several repayment plans. Some private student loan companies offer similar options.

The bottom line

Understanding your mix of assets and and passing the eligibility test doesn’t necessarily mean bankruptcy is the best option for you over debt consolidation. And owning a house or having the credit score to qualify for a balance transfer credit card or personal loan doesn’t mean you should consolidate your debt.

If you understand the differences but are struggling to make up your mind or having trouble understanding your options, you should contact a professional. Lynch recommended speaking to multiple financial professionals, including a credit counselor or bankruptcy attorney, and weighing their recommendations before making a final decision.

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