Serious Debt? What Are Your Options?

If you have credit card, medical bill debt, or other unsecured personal loans that are so large you can’t pay them off in a reasonable amount of time, you will likely end up using one of the following options to deal with it.

1. Borrow your way out

In the recent past, most with serious unsecured debts would turn to their home in the form of a home equity line or second mortgage. This was a quick fix that usually provided a lower monthly payment to service the same amount of debt. The obvious problem now? Loans are more difficult to come by.

The other problem? The new lender will require that the home be pledged as security for the loan. Once that happens, the debt is here to stay. The borrower will eventually pay in full or lose the home. These loans are almost always of the higher rate and higher cost variety as well.

2. Non Bankruptcy Payment Plan – Consumer Credit Counseling

Many credit providers will work out a payment plan with you either directly or through a “credit counselor”. These counselors or agencies gather your income and budget information, help you get organized, and propose a new payment arrangement to each creditor. The proposal typically consists of a reduction in the interest rate and a lower monthly payment. Problems do exist, especially where the debt is so high that no “payment plan” will ever catch you up.

For those with serious debt, the debt usually never goes away, the credit report continues to reflect late payments, and at some point, a collector gets involved again.

If you are going to engage a credit counselor, make sure that 1. They are reputable 2. They are not doing something for you that you couldn’t do yourself and 3. That the proposed plan is “doable” and will pay off the debt in full in a reasonable amount of time.

3. “Negotiate” your debt

Many unsecured credit card lenders will reduce the principal balance and accept a sum smaller then they are owed to “settle” the account. “A bird in the hand” as they say.

Once you have fallen behind on the debt, the creditor or collector has a “formula” that tells them how much they will accept to settle the account at any given time. If you are a bankruptcy candidate or if they believe that for some other reason they may end up getting less than they would like, they may adjust the amount downward.

The willingness on the part of these credit card companies has led to the growth of a horde of so-called “professional” debt negotiators. You hear the ads on TV, Radio and if you listen to enough cable news, you start to hear them in your head.

Most of these companies include in their “pitches” things that aren’t necessarily true. Things that lead you to believe that these credit card companies must allow you to settle your debt or that they have some secret that allows them to settle your debt for less than anyone else.

The truth, however, is a little different as follows:

A. You can probably do on your own what most “debt negotiation professionals” are able to do for you.

In order to have a shot at convincing the lender to settle for less than the standard, I find that you need to be a good candidate for bankruptcy and the creditor must believe that to be true, and you need to have the cash in your hand when you make the settlement offer.

If these two things aren’t true, you are simply relying on the “good graces” of the creditor to determine the amount of settlement. That is all a “debt negotiation professional” does i.e. rely on good graces and a slick marketing campaign.

B. If you begin to make payments monthly to the “debt settlement professional” you will likely continue to get collection calls and you may even be sued before you come up with the funds to settle all the debts.

Monthly payments to the “debt negotiation professional” does not stop the clock from ticking, nor does it stop the creditor's litigation timeline. There is no secret word that the “professional” use to magically stop the collection. Many people with serious debt learn this the hard way.

C. “Debt Settlement Professionals” are very expensive and you are vastly overpaying for what you get.

In essence, you are paying the company to set up an accounting system to collect and track your money. When they are paid the estimated amount for their fee and the estimated amount needed to settle, they make some phone calls. If you are sued in the meantime, they “earned their fee” for magically keeping the debt collector from suing you until then.

I have reviewed dozens of the contracts they use, and know that most people taken in by these operators pay a “set up” fee, a monthly fee and a percentage of either the total debt or the amount saved. For a debtor with $100,000 in credit card debt who settles the debt for 50%, or $50,000, the overall fee is usually $12,000 to $20,000.

Before you consider paying these types of fees, contact your local bankruptcy attorney. Ask him or her to put together a bankruptcy case if you are a good candidate for bankruptcy. Then ask them to use it and your funds as leverage to negotiate with your creditors on an hourly basis.

You will pay far less and likely get a much better result. One governed by Arizona State Ethics Rules for Attorneys.

D. Forgiven debt is taxable

Unless you fall under the “insolvency” exception, you will have to treat the forgiven portion of the debt as income on your tax return. Bankruptcy is the other exception.

E. While you are waiting to save the money to settle your credit score is being destroyed

Most creditors don’t seem to be interested in settling unless you are late on your payments. Most people who engage the “professional debt negotiator” stop making payments and never start again. The plan falls apart, they still have the debt and the 10 months of late pays on the report. Thanks.

4. File for Bankruptcy

Filing for bankruptcy is usually the most comprehensive and effective method for dealing with serious debt. Bankruptcy can do the following:

A. Stops Debt Collection by virtue of the federally mandated “automatic stay”
B. Provides a means to save a home from foreclosure C. Provides a means to save your car from repossession D. Provides a potential means to reduce secured debt amounts E. Discharges or wipes away most if not all of your consumer debt
Chapter 13 bankruptcy, allows you to pay what you can “afford” over a set amount of time to your creditors.

In almost every instance the amount paid in chapter 13 is far less then a debt settlement negotiation will require you to pay.

There are downsides. Bankruptcy carries a stigma. It has become a bit more difficult to qualify to file, the workload to file has increased, it is a matter of public record and stays on the credit report for 10 years.

My clients go through a rigorous analysis process to determine which of the options described above is the best.