Thursday, June 21

What Debt Settlement Companies Won't Tell You

An excellent article appeared today on about the downside of using a debt settlement company. Personally, in my years of banking, we have worked with very few of these companies. Why? Because as a creditor, we could offer the debtor a much better deal by working directly with them instead of through the debt settlement company. By working directly with the debtor, we're able to negotiate a settlement plan directly, eliminating any 'fair share fees' or other costs that detract from repaying the debt.

What debt-settlement companies won't tell you
1. Debt settlement may not be right for you
Debt settlement is a niche solution that's right only for a small segment of the population, says Charles Phelan, founder of, who coaches consumers on do-it-yourself debt settlement. But don't expect to hear that from a debt-settlement company. "People working the desks at the debt-settlement companies are working on commission and have the incentive of bringing as many people as possible," he says.

You could be a good candidate for debt settlement if you're heading toward bankruptcy, but don't qualify for filing Chapter 7, Phelan explains. (Under Chapter 7, most of your unsecured debts are written off, but you'll most likely have to sell some property including your home). "Most people who can qualify for Chapter 7 in all likelihood lack the cash flow to make debt settlement work for them," he says. Debt settlement, in other words, might be a viable alternative to Chapter 13, which sets up a three- to five-year schedule with your creditors to repay your debts. (For more details on qualifying for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, read our story.)

Likewise, if you can scrape up the cash to pay off your debts in a debt-management program, where you work with a debt-management company to pay off your balances in full but with lower interest rates, then debt settlement isn't the best solution.

2. Your credit will suffer
Creditors don't settle unless you're severely behind on your payments. That means one thing: Debt settlement is damaging to your credit. Just how damaging it is depends on your track record. If you're already behind on payments, your credit will suffer less than if you've managed to avoid delinquencies and credit charge-offs.

3. You could get sued
With bankruptcy, creditors have to stop collections efforts as soon as you file. That's not the case with debt settlement. Even if you inform your creditors of your efforts to settle, they won't stop trying to collect, Phelan says. Worst-case scenario, they could sue you for the amounts you owe. Should that occur the only way to avoid a black mark on your credit record would be to pay off the debt in full.

4. There are tax consequences
Debt settlement is a taxable event. Any forgiven balance that exceeds $600 is taxable income, says Linfield. "Sometimes that tax event can put people in worse shape than they were in to begin with," she says. Consider this: If your tax rate is 15%, $5,000 of forgiven debt will carry a $750 tax liability. That's a debt that the IRS won't forgive. (Read our story for advice on what to do when you can't pay your taxes.) One exception: If you're insolvent — namely your assets are less than your liabilities — you can petition the IRS to waive that tax liability by filing form 982.

5. Our services might be illegal
While the laws regulating debt-settlement companies vary greatly by state, it's worth noting that 12 states currently prohibit for-profit debt management. Since debt-settlement companies are for-profit entities, they're not allowed to practice there. Those states are Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming. If you live in one of those states, remember: It is illegal for for-profit debt-settlement companies to contact you and work with you, even if they're based in another state. "Many companies do it anyway," Linfield says. "And that's a big red flag."