Debt Settlement: How It Works, FAQs And More

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Updated on Thursday, February 6, 2020

Household debt statistics ebb and flow over the years, but debt never completely goes away. As of January 2020, 41.2% of U.S. households have credit card debt. The average among American households carrying a balance is $9,333.

But whether you’re buried under credit card, medical or another type of debt, one option you might be considering is debt settlement. This form of debt relief can help you erase your unpaid balances – but it isn’t guaranteed and can mean costly consequences for both your credit and wallet.

What is debt settlement?

Debt settlement is the process of hiring a company to negotiate with your creditors to reduce or erase your balances. You may also do it yourself. (More on that below.)

When you hire a debt settlement company, you’ll be asked to deposit a certain amount of money in a savings or escrow account each month. (The account will belong to you.) As you build your savings, the debt settlement company will generally advise you to stay delinquent with your creditors. That means you’ll continue to accrue fees, such as for late payment on your debts – hurting your credit in the meantime.

Once your savings account accumulates a high enough balance, the debt settlement company will begin negotiating with your creditors to settle the debt. If your creditors agree to settle, the payoff amount will be taken out of the savings account.

Fees

Fees for debt settlement programs can be difficult to find on company websites. However, most consumers can expect fees to range from 15% to 25% of the total debt they enroll in the program. Fees are charged against successfully settled debts, but may also include fees for any third-party managed savings account that is part of the program.

Pros and cons of debt settlement

Is debt settlement a good idea

Pros

Cons

  • Can reduce your total balances due
  • Simplifies monthly bill payment
  • May help you avoid bankruptcy
  • Could take less time to finalize than Chapter 13
  • Fees can be costly
  • You generally need to be behind on payments and remain delinquent, accumulating late fees
  • Remaining behind on payments will negatively impact your credit
  • No guarantee that your creditors will accept the settlement offer
  • Canceled debt may be treated as taxable income

Working with a debt settlement company

  • Evaluate debt settlement companies. This starts by comparing the fees and claims of each company. Debt settlement can be risky as it isn’t guaranteed, so it’s critical to compare fees. Additionally, since there is no guarantee that a creditor will accept the settlement, it’s a good idea to review each company’s claims to ensure you’re dealing with one that sets reasonable expectations.Next, evaluate the company’s process as well as their terms to make sure you qualify. For any company you work with, you should retain control over the funds. Some companies begin making settlement agreements as soon as the funds build up, others wait.
  • Research debt settlement companies. After you’ve narrowed down your choices, check on the company’s compliance and other user experiences. You can visit the Better Business Bureau and ensure the companies are members of the American Fair Credit Council and the International Association of Professional Debt Arbitrators.
  • Establish agreement/account. Upon selecting a company to work with, visit their website to open an account. Be prepared to give your name, phone number, email address and the total amount of credit card debt.
  • Start saving money according to your plan. Once the company reviews your debt, they will propose a savings plan that you should follow. This will require you to make a single deposit into an account usually managed by a third party.
  • Saved funds are disbursed. When the company begins making settlement agreements, the funds will be distributed from the account, paying off both debts and settlement company fees.

How to settle debt on your own

1. Figure out which accounts are past due

If you’ve secured money through a loan, savings or inheritance and you want to leverage that to settle your debt, you don’t have to hire a debt settlement company. Instead, you can take care of it yourself or hire a lawyer to handle the negotiations.

For a debt settlement offer to be appealing to creditors, you likely need to be behind on payments. Rather than stopping payments on your current debt, make a list of the debts you are already behind on.

Next check the statute of limitations on that past-due debt. If you have debt that’s past the statute of limitations, then you can no longer be sued by the creditor to collect. If you decide to make a partial payment on debts that are past the statute of limitations, it might restart the clock on the statute.

2. Save money, and determine how much you can pay

Before contacting your creditors to make a settlement offer, determine what kind of lump sum or payment plan agreement you can stick to. The goal is not only to pay off the settled debts but to stay current with all your other bills and ensure you have enough of a cushion to deal with potential emergencies.

If you don’t have a lump sum of money to offer for debt settlement

3. Contact your creditors

Creditors need to agree to reduce your debt balance as part of your settlement offer. To find out which creditors are amenable to debt reduction, contact all those whose payments you’ve fallen behind on. Because you want everything documented, this contact should be made in writing, although you can call the company as well.

In some cases, this debt may have already been transferred to a collection agency. If that’s the case, verify which collection agency has taken the debt and contact them.

4. Write a debt settlement letter

Once you know which creditors are willing to settle, write a debt settlement letter spelling out the details of the agreement. This letter should include:

  • The account number
  • The reason you want to settle the debt
  • The current balance
  • The proposed settlement amount or restructured payment plan
  • The deadline for the settlement payment or starting date for the payment plan

Sample debt settlement letters

Alternatives to debt settlement

Debt management plans

Nonprofit credit counseling organizations often offer what’s called a debt management plan. This is a strategy in which the credit counseling agency works with creditors to reduce your interest rates and create payment plans that work with your budget. You then make a single monthly payment to the agency and have a payoff date within three to five years.

A debt management plan may come with a monthly fee as well as a setup fee. However, these fees may be worthwhile, as the credit counseling agency will work to have late fees and other kinds of fees waived on your debt.

Debt consolidation

If you don’t like the idea of keeping your debts unpaid for debt settlement, you can instead consider debt consolidation. You can accomplish this by either:

  • Working with a nonprofit credit counselor to create a debt management plan; or
  • Getting a personal loan, balance transfer card or equity loan to pay off all creditors, thus reducing your repayments to a single lender and due date.

Bankruptcy

Debt settlement is often chosen as a way to avoid bankruptcy, but in some situations, bankruptcy could be a better option.

  • With Chapter 13 bankruptcy, a three- to five-year payment plan can mean that your debts are settled and your secured assets protected with a court-approved payment plan and possibly lower debt balances.
  • With Chapter 7 bankruptcy, many unsecured debts can be discharged without payment, so you might save even more money. Since credit cards are unsecured debt, Chapter 7 can be a better choice than credit card debt settlement.

With either type of bankruptcy, collection actions are stopped, along with garnishments. This can provide a welcome relief to those being hounded by debt collectors.

FAQ: Debt settlement

A debt that’s been settled will show as such for up to seven years on your credit report. In addition, late payments of 30 days or more can remain on your credit report for up to seven years.

Because debt settlement generally requires you to remain past due on payments, it can have a detrimental effect on credit. Missing more than one payment, which is typical for debt settlement, can have an even greater impact.

Taking a settlement in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, although it will show up on your credit report. There can be tax consequences on the forgiven debt, so make sure you’re ready to pay those. Settlements also generally require you to be past due on payments, which also has a negative effect on your credit score.

Debt settlement companies often claim reductions of 30% to 70%. This does not include fees paid to the settlement company.

To qualify for debt settlement, a creditor generally must be enduring a financial hardship that has put them behind on payments. They must also meet the company’s debt balance requirements.

Debt settlement companies often claim to have an advantage with creditors by handling a large volume of customer debt through bulk negotiations. This could mean you have better odds of having your agreement accepted when you use one. However, you may save money by handling it on your own.

Avoid companies that charge in advance or that guarantee results. Check the Better Business Bureau for complaints and make sure the company is compliant with the Federal Trade Commission.

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