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Debt Guide: When to File Bankruptcy

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For some people, bankruptcy may be an appropriate option. In a bankruptcy, you may be able to eliminate some or all of your debts. However, debt forgiveness does not come lightly. Chapter 7 (where all eligible debt is eliminated) stays on your record for 10 years. Chapter 13 stays on your report for 7 years. And, during that time (especially in the first 3-5 years), you may find it virtually impossible to apply for any new credit. And credit is not limited to mortgages and auto loans. It can even include pay-as-you- go mobile phone packages. If you work in the financial services sector, you may find that bankruptcy will make it impossible to get a job. So, this decision should not be taken lightly.

However, for some people, this may be the only option. I will give a few examples of people whom I have met, where bankruptcy made complete sense:

  • A hardworking man had a medical emergency. Unfortunately, he did not have medical insurance. The total bill was over $500,000. And his annual salary was $40,000. There was no chance that he would ever pay off that debt. Bankruptcy made perfect sense.
  • A married couple unfortunately did not plan for the future. They had no life insurance, no savings and credit card debt. The husband was a professional, and the wife stayed at home with the children. The husband died unexpectedly. Between the funeral, the credit card debt from before the marriage and the costs of the transition, the widow had over $75,000 of debt. She was able to get a secretarial job for $25,000. It made sense to eliminate the debt with bankruptcy.

The biggest reasons for bankruptcy are medical and divorce. We always try to work with people to help them prepare for the worst. Everyone should have medical insurance, even if that means paying for a high deductible (low premium) policy that at least insures against bankruptcy. If someone depends upon you (like the husband in the story above), term life insurance is necessity, and it doesn’t cost much. In medicine, it is always better to prevent (via a good diet and exercise) than to fix after something goes wrong. The same is true in financial matters. However, if you are now in the emergency room, a bankruptcy may be the right option.

What can a bankruptcy do for me?

A bankruptcy gives you the opportunity to eliminate a significant portion of your debt. The bank has to write off the debt, and is no longer able to collect on the debt.

In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, all of the eligible debt is eliminated. It takes about 3-6 months to have the bankruptcy discharged.

  • Most or all of your unsecured debt will be erased. Unsecured debt would include things like credit card debt, personal loan debt, medical bills, mobile phone bills and other debt.
  • Certain types of debt are usually excluded from bankruptcy. These include student loan debt, tax obligations, spousal support, child support and some other types of debt can not be eliminated.
  • Some of your property may have to be sold to pay off your debt. However, in most cases, your primary property is exempt.
  • For secured property (like an auto loan), you will be given a choice. You can continue to pay, you can have the property repossessed, or you can make a lump sum payment (at the replacement value).

If your problem is with credit card debt and/or medical debt, than Chapter 7 makes sense. All of that debt will be wiped out. You continue to pay (and keep) your mortgage and auto loan.

In a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, you are not able to eliminate all of your debt. Instead, you will be forced to make regular monthly payments towards your debt before it is completely eliminated.

Chapter 7 or Chapter 13?

If given the choice, most people would choose Chapter 7. From a credit score perspective, they both have equal (negative) impact on your score. In fact, here is what FICO says:

The formula considers these two forms of bankruptcy as having the same level of severity and, for both types, uses the filing date to determine how long ago the bankruptcy took place. As with other negative credit information, the negative effect of a bankruptcy to one’s FICO score will diminish over time.

So, if you get the same penalty, but in one form of bankruptcy all of your debt is wiped out, and you still have to pay back some debt in the other form, then you would probably choose Chapter 7. And most people did, until the law was changed in 2005.

Note: there may be some instances when you will want to file Chapter 13 instead of Chapter 7. For example, if you are behind on your house payments and want to keep your house, Chapter 13 may make more sense. Why? In Chapter 13, you can put your past due mortgage payments into your repayment plan, and pay them back over time. In Chapter 7, your past due mortgage payments may be due right away.

However, in the majority of cases, Chapter 7 is more favorable to the borrower than Chapter 13.

There are now some “means tests” required to see if you can file for Chapter 7. Here are some very basic rules:

  • If your family income is below the median income of your state, you will probably be able to file Chapter 7. The income used is the average of your last 6 months income. You can find the median incomes here.
  • If your income is above the median, you may still be able to file bankruptcy. However, you will have to pass a means test. Your income and expenditures will be looked at, to see if you have the ability to make payments towards a payment plan over 5 years towards the accumulated debt.

In addition, if you tried to be clever, you will likely be caught. Any recent cash advances on your credit card, and any recent luxury purchases can be exempt from the bankruptcy completely.

It used to be very easy to file for Chapter 7 and have all of your unsecured debt eliminated. That is no longer the case. But, if you have low income, you can still proceed. And, if you have a very difficult situation, you can still find a path towards eliminating a significant portion of your debt.

How to Proceed

As part of the bankruptcy legislation, you need to meet with a non-profit debt counselor before you are allowed to file for bankruptcy. So, whether you are thinking about negotiating settlements or filing for ?bankruptcy, it makes sense to meet with a counselor. You can find a list of the approved agencies here.

For further reading on bankruptcy, we recommend this website (NOLO) – they have an excellent library of information.

In Summary

If you are in too deep, bankruptcy may be the only remaining viable option. I have met many people who filed bankruptcy, and went on to live very fulfilling and prosperous lives. Companies file bankruptcy all the time – and I believe that people should have the same legal protections that companies have.

You just need to be realistic about what bankruptcy can and cannot do. If you have student loans, tax liens, spousal support or child support – you will not be able to use this tool. You need to find a way to pay back your debt.

But, if you have been hit with a big medical bill, or your credit card debt is just too large relative to your income, bankruptcy could be the best option. It will be a very difficult 2 years. By Year 3, things will look a lot better. And, 7 years later, your score will reflect the person you have been in the last 7 years. A very good friend of mine had filed bankruptcy. He now has a home (purchased with a mortgage at a low rate). He has a car (purchased with a 0% car loan). And he has a rewards credit card (that he pays off in full every month). His score is high. It was a rough couple of years, but it made sense. Otherwise, he would have been making minimum payments for 30 years and still wouldn’t be out of debt.

Weigh your options carefully. Meet with a non-profit counselor. We are always available at MagnifyMoney to talk as well (just email us at info@magnifymoney.com).

Good luck with your decision.

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A Procrastinator’s Guide to Managing Your Finances

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Many of us fall victim to procrastination from time to time. And when it comes to managing your finances, avoiding or delaying tasks can get expensive very quickly.

“Our lives are busy, and sometimes we don’t want to deal with it,” says Gerri Detweiler, education director at the business credit management website Nav and author of “Debt Collection Answers: How to Use Debt Collection Laws to Protect Your Rights.

In fact, Detweiler remembers the price she paid the year she pushed off renewing her business filings with the state.

“I didn’t get it done right away and paid enormously for it,” she said.

No matter the reason behind your procrastination, it can lead to a financial mess unless you move it to the forefront of your to-do list. Know that it is possible to transform into a doer – even if you’re a habitual procrastinator – by adopting the small changes below to achieve big results down the line.

1. Automate as much as possible

If you’re prone to procrastination, keeping on top of payments can feel overwhelming, especially if you have multiple lenders you need to pay every month. Consider automating your payments so you can avoid late fees and charges. Detweiler advises setting up text or email alerts so you know when payments are due and if there are any changes to the minimum payment amount. You can set up automatic payments with either the lender or through your bank’s bill pay tool; all you have to do is just make sure you have enough money in your account to cover what you owe.

2. Consolidate debt so you have fewer bills to keep track of

The average person has 3.06 bank cards and 2.5 retail cards, according to Experian’s 2018 State of Credit Report. Detweiler advises keeping two credit cards active at any given time: one with a lower interest rate to use for bigger purchases where you can revolve a balance, and a second credit card that is used for everything else, including earning rewards, that you pay off in full at the end of month. Then, put the rest of your cards in a drawer once they’re paid off and use them only occasionally to keep the accounts from being closed by the issuer.

If you have multiple high-interest credit card balances, you may be able to qualify for a balance transfer card offering 0% interest for a specific period of time. While most balance transfer deals charge a 3% balance transfer fee, which is added to the amount you transfer, it may make financial sense to move multiple balances to one card with one payment. Then, devise a repayment plan to knock down that balance as much as possible during the no-interest period as your payments will all be directed toward the principal until the 0% offer has expired.

Another option is to consolidate multiple card balances or other debts with a debt consolidation loan. Depending on how good your credit score is, you may be able to find a lender offering an interest rate lower than what you’re paying on your credit cards. The beauty of a debt consolidation loan is that you can use it to pay off your debts and then have one fixed payment over a specific period of time, generally two to five years. Of course, this will only help if you have the discipline to refrain from adding new debts or purchases to your now-cleared credit cards.

If you’re really struggling and over your head with your finances, consider talking to a credit counselor that can put you on a debt management plan.

3. Turn to technology to help change behavior

If you’re a procrastinator, relying on your willpower can be challenging. Thankfully, technology can help with that. Consider turning to apps or websites to help change any unhealthy behaviors and transform any bad habits.

For instance, you could download a robo-saving app, such as Digit, or enroll in a savings program like Bank of America’s Keep the Change, that help make saving as painless and out-of-mind as possible. Remember that small financial goals (like saving $5 per day versus $150 per month) will seem more achievable and can help lead to big improvements.

Other apps or websites aggregate information about multiple accounts, so you can see what’s due and what’s outstanding on a weekly or monthly basis, can also come in handy. Detweiler suggests Mint, Credit Karma, or the EveryDollar budget app. She also suggests setting reminders so you can remember to log in regularly. When you see the progress you’ve made in a chart or graph, it acts like a reward that is sent to your brain, which is key to long-lasting behavior changes, as journalist Charles Duhigg noted in his book “The Power of Habit.”

Whether your procrastination is the result of being really bad at time management or overly demanding standards that result in unhealthy levels of perfectionism, it helps to be aware of what’s causing any counterproductive, irrational behavior so you can determine how to do better.

For instance, if you’re really bad at estimating how long it’ll take you to finish a task, then make a habit of starting earlier than you normally would. Or, if your overly demanding standards stop you from getting started, then remind yourself before you start the task that “done” is better than perfect and think back to times that procrastination has proven harmful to you.

Changing behaviors, like managing your time better or reducing any anxiety you feel when tackling big tasks (like paying multiple lenders every month), can be challenging, but not impossible. Breaking things down into small, simpler tasks and using technology to help you as much as possible can set you on a fresh path to break unhealthy habits and lead to big improvements on your finances.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Got Tax Debt? Here’s What to Do

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Some people are fearful of the IRS. But if you are someone who owes tax debt to the IRS, you need more than a little bit of healthy fear to get you through — you need a plan. Here’s what you can do to pay off tax debt.

7 steps to pay off tax debt

Make an initial payment.

If you can’t pay your tax bill, one strategy — according to the IRS — is to make an initial payment based on how much you can afford, then work to determine a plan for paying down the rest of your debt.

Determine how much you can pay.

When faced with what seems like a staggering tax bill, don’t panic. The important thing is that you don’t ignore the IRS. One of your first steps should be to determine how much of your tax bill you can afford to pay. And keep in mind that whatever you don’t pay will be subject to accruing interest and penalty fees.

Choose a payment option.

Once you have settled on how much of a payment you can make, you have to make that payment. These are the main options for payments: using the electronic federal tax payment system, which is free, but is most suitable for businesses or large payments and requires enrollment; electronic funds withdrawal (which can be done during e-filing) straight from your bank account or from the IRS mobile app, same-day wiring (which may carry bank fees), a check or money order, or cash at a retail partner.

Ask for an installment agreement.

If you know you can’t make your payment in full, you can apply online for a payment plan through the IRS. Your eligibility for a payment option will depend on your individual tax situation.

To apply for an installment agreement, you have to fill out an application online that will include information such as your Social Security number, your most recent tax return filing date and your basic personal information. There are three options for a payment plan: a full payment, a short-term payment plan that will require paying in less than 120 days and a long-term installment agreement to pay over more than 120 days. In general, you are eligible to apply online for the installment agreement if you owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest fees and you have filed all your tax returns. The Federal Trade Commission also notes that the IRS usually can’t deny an installment agreement if you owe less than $10,000.

Ask for an offer in compromise.

Contrary to what you may think, the IRS is willing to work with you if you have tax debt and can’t pay what you owe. According to the IRS, it will consider what it calls an offer in compromise if you can’t pay your bills — and if doing so will cause a financial hardship to you.

An offer in compromise is something that can be considered after you have exhausted other options. It is based on several factors that the IRS will assess, including:

  • Your ability to pay
  • Your current income
  • Your total debt and expense obligation
  • Your assets and equity

If you can put together a reasonable offer in compromise, the IRS notes that it is generally able to accept the offer if it represents the most it can expect to collect within a “reasonable amount of time.”

There are some qualifications that you have to meet to be considered for an offer in compromise, which is detailed on the IRS website. When you submit your offer, you will have to choose one of two payment options to show the IRS your offer is serious: a lump sum or a periodic payment. The lump-sum offer consists of you including 20% of the total offer amount. If the IRS takes your offer, it will keep that 20% payment and you will pay the rest in up to five payments. If you go the periodic payment route, you’ll still submit an initial payment with your offer application, but you’ll make monthly installments while you wait to hear back from the IRS. If it does accept your application, you’ll pay monthly until your offer is paid off.

In some cases, if you meet certain low-income qualifications, your application fee, initial payment and monthly installments will be waived while your offer is considered. While the IRS considers your offer, you are required to make any associated payments with your offer, and any other collection activities will be suspended. If you don’t hear back from the IRS within two years of your offer, it is considered accepted.

Ask for “Currently Not Collectible” status.

Depending on your financial state, the IRS may determine that your account is not collectible at the moment and temporarily pause collection until your status changes. To be eligible for the status, you may have to complete a Collection Information Statement and submit proof of your finances, such as your monthly income and assets. Even if the IRS determines that you are in a not-collectible status, your debt will still be susceptible to penalties and interests until the full amount is paid. To request a delay in the collection process, you have to call the IRS.

Work with a professional.

Although it might seem counterproductive, it may be helpful to hire a tax professional who can help you sort through your options and make a plan. The IRS recommends that if you choose to work with a tax professional, you make sure you vet their credentials. There are certain rules pertaining to debt collection, and you always have the right to work directly with the IRS instead of a debt collector.

What you should know about tax debt

Tax debt can occur in large or small amounts. Essentially, as soon as you fail to pay what you owe the IRS, you have tax debt. Here’s what you should know about tax debt.

IRS collection practices. The official collection practice for tax debt begins after you have received your tax bill from the IRS and failed to make your payment in full. After you receive your first tax bill, the IRS will send you one more bill before enacting collection actions. But, in the meantime, the amount you owe will continue to accrue interest and possible penalties.

Once the IRS has sent your final tax bill, it will move to collection actions, which can range from using any future tax refunds to seizing your property and assets or showing up at your home or business.

Statute of limitations. In general, the statute of limitations on a tax liability for the IRS is 10 years. After the statute of limitations expires, the government no longer has the right to pursue collecting that liability.

Always file your taxes. One of the best ways to be proactive against tax debt is to make sure that you always file your taxes by the IRS deadline and work to make any type of payment that you can. Delaying, either with filing or with debt, never pays off. It’s always best to work with a tax professional to file your return to make sure that you reduce your chance of an error.

Don’t ignore notices from the IRS. As tempting as it may be to think that ignoring notices from the IRS will make them forget about any debt you owe, it doesn’t exactly work that way. In fact, the longer the IRS doesn’t hear from you or is unable to reach you, the more it may increase its efforts. For instance, the IRS could turn to seizing property, your bank account and your possessions, or issuing you a summons.

The bottom line

If you find yourself in a situation where you have tax debt, you have options. You can work directly with the IRS and submit details of your financial status to come up with some sort of payment plan or even temporary deferment depending on your specific situation.

The most important thing you can do is communicate with the IRS and take steps to show it you are serious about making some form of payment.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Chaunie Brusie
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Chaunie Brusie is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Chaunie here

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