Average American debt varies by age, but some households are carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. If you’re looking for a way out, you might want to try debt settlement — the process of negotiating a payment for less than what you currently owe. While this option has its risks, it may work for some people. Here’s what it is and how to see if it’s right for you.
What is debt settlement?
Debt settlement is when your debt is settled for less than what you currently owe, with the promise that you’ll pay the amount settled for in full.
Sometimes known as debt relief or debt adjustment, debt settlement is usually handled by a third-party company, although you could do it by yourself. Not all lenders accept debt settlements, and there are some instances where it could cause more financial harm than good.
How does debt settlement work?
There are a few different methods for reaching debt settlement. It’s usually done by a third-party company or sometimes a lawyer, and you’ll need to pay for their services — either in a flat fee or a percentage of your savings. This means that even if your debt is settled for less than what you owe, you still have additional costs outside of your outstanding debt.
As this company negotiates your debt, you’ll need to start making payments to your debt settlement company. That means depositing regular amounts into an account the company can use to make payments on your debt or collect on the fees you owe them. Some companies will request that you stop paying your creditor directly and instead pay them until they’ve reached a settlement. This means that you may fall further behind on payments, and your credit score could plummet.
Once a settlement is reached — whether it’s a lump-sum reduced amount, lower monthly payment or a debt discharge — you’ll need to agree to the new terms. This needs to happen for settlement to move forward, but you’re not obligated to agree to any terms if you don’t want to. Depending on how the debt was settled, you’ll make payments to the company handling your debt until your outstanding debt is paid in full.
Risks of debt settlement
Debt settlement is sometimes the best option for getting out of debt; however, it’s not without its risks.
You could face hefty fees
The fees associated with debt settlement services vary depending on local state laws. However, it’s not unusual for a third-party debt settlement professional to charge between 15 percent and 25 percent of the debt that gets resolved. That means if you’re seeking to settle a debt of $50,000, you’ll pay a fee based on that amount, not on the final negotiated repayment amount.
It’s important to note, however, that according to rules enacted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2010, debt negotiation companies may charge fees only after they have resolved the debt for the client.
Your credit score may be damaged
Going through the settlement process and resolving debt using this approach can negatively impact your credit score.
For instance, many debt settlement companies ask that you stop making payments on your credit card during negotiations because lenders and creditors are not as likely to negotiate with a consumer who is still able to make monthly payments on their bills. Not paying bills, of course, damages your credit.
“To settle, most creditors require that an account is in a delinquent status,” says debt attorney Leslie Tayne, founder of Tayne Law Group. “During the settlement process, an individual’s credit score will often take a hit while the accounts are in negotiation. This means you may also be sued.”
In addition, when accounts are marked as “settled” on credit reports, it can have a negative impact on your credit score.
Debt settlement is not as quick as you think
For starters, you’ll need to put a significant amount of money into a settlement account. At the same time, the attorney or debt settlement company will need to work with each of your creditors to come to a resolution. It’s not unusual for the entire process to take as long as three to four years.
The forgiven debt is taxable
While it may be a relief to have your debt settled, and possibly for less than you originally owed, you may now be on the hook with the IRS. That’s because forgiven debt over $600 is taxable. In other words, you may have to pay taxes on the difference between what you owe and what you will be paying back.
You may owe more than when you started
When you begin the debt settlement process, the debt attorney or third-party company will often advise you to stop making payments on your debt. However, even after you stop making payments, interest will still be accruing on that debt. What’s more, you may also begin racking up late fees. In the end, these charges may increase your debt to more than was originally owed.
You may not be able to settle
Not all companies will settle your outstanding debt. And even if they do agree to settle, some refuse to work with debt settlement companies. Keep in mind that you may not get to settle with each company you have an outstanding debt with.
Alternatives to debt settlement
If debt settlement doesn’t work for your scenario, you have other options.
Bankruptcy vs. debt settlement
Bankruptcy is usually considered a last resort, but depending on your circumstances, you might prefer it.
Filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy will remove most outstanding debt, like credit cards, medical debt or other types of loans, but won’t remove back taxes, student loan debt or child support. This type of bankruptcy can take a few months to complete, compared to a few years with debt settlement. Neither option looks great on your credit report, but the sooner you remove or settle your debt, the sooner you can move on. If you want something faster, bankruptcy might be better than debt settlement.
Debt consolidation vs. debt settlement
Debt consolidation is when you combine all your debt and pay it off at once, then make one payment to your new loan. It can reduce the amount of outstanding interest you owe and lets you make one manageable payment per month rather than many.
You can use a nonprofit credit counseling agency to help you through debt consolidation or go through it on your own using a debt consolidation loan.
Credit counseling vs. debt settlement
A nonprofit credit counseling agency can help you come up with a debt management plan that allows you to pay off your debt in circumstances that work best for your finances. Sometimes, credit counseling agencies will work similarly to debt settlement companies. Some companies have little to no extra cost on your end, but you’ll make payments to them rather than to your creditor. You’ll usually close all outstanding accounts — like credit cards — until your debt is paid off.
Before starting, ensure that you’re working with an accredited agency, like American Consumer Credit Counseling, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or Financial Counseling Association of America.
Balance transfers vs. debt settlement
If you have credit card debt, you may want to consider a balance transfer. A balance transfer is when you move your outstanding credit card debt to a new credit card that offers 0 percent APR for a set amount of time, usually between 12 and 24 months. This means you’ll be able to make low monthly payments without the extra cost of interest added on every month to your outstanding balance. But once those terms are up, you’ll get charged interest on anything that isn’t paid in full every month.
The best balance transfer credit cards won’t charge a fee to transfer your outstanding balance. But keep in mind that not all balance transfer credit cards will transfer your full outstanding balance. This could mean that you’re on the hook for paying off your new balance as well as whatever didn’t transfer over.
Beware of debt settlement scams
While there are many companies looking out for your best interest, some debt settlement companies are scams. You can avoid fraudsters by:
- Avoiding businesses that make false promises: If a company says that it can make your debt go away and stop debt lawsuits and collections, beware. Remember, your creditor isn’t obligated to accept a settlement, and some won’t work with debt settlement companies. Getting your debt and related problems to disappear is not a guarantee.
- Not paying fees before debt settlement: If your debt settlement company requires money before it’s done any work, that’s a red flag. Read the fine print when it asks for payment, and make sure that you know what it’s going toward.
- Keeping up with communications: If your debt settlement company doesn’t tell you about the risks involved in debt settlement or the consequences of not making payments to your debt collectors, that’s a problem. You should know every risk before handing over your money (or pausing payments), and it’s your debt settlement company’s job to make sure that you’re aware of what’s at stake.
The bottom line
While debt settlement might sound like a great idea, it’s not always the best option for tackling your debt. Some creditors and debt collection agencies don’t work with debt settlement companies, and some don’t do settlements at all. And even if they do, it could take years before a settlement is reached. Imagine waiting for multiple types of debt and the damage it could do to your credit history during that time.
You have other options, including debt consolidation, debt management plans, credit card balance transfers and even bankruptcy. Evaluate all your options before deciding, and don’t be afraid to change course if it’s not working out like you expected.