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Debt Consolidation vs. Debt Settlement vs. Bankruptcy? What Can You Expect from Each Option

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

When facing mounting debts that cannot be repaid according to the regular monthly terms, one should consider all options for debt resolution including bankruptcy relief and non-bankruptcy alternatives. But before you hastily take the most convenient option, consider the benefits and disadvantages for each. In fact, I often encourage my bankruptcy clients to make an apples-to-apples comparison between their debt resolution options—including a list of the pros, cons, risks and costs for each resolution—and often the best and cheapest option quickly becomes clear.

Debt consolidation is a general term for taking out one larger, lower interest loan and using the loan proceeds to pay off any number of smaller, higher interest rate debts. In this way, you are repaying 100% of your debts but potentially saving money on interest over time. While balance transfers and credit card checks with promotional interest rates may be tempting, it’s critical to read the fine print for any hidden fees of balance transfers and the deadlines when the promotional interest rates expire. For example, credit cards and some new loans will charge a small percentage fee on the amount of credit used for the balance transfer or to initiate the loan. Also, the promotional rate expires in only a short time and often any balance remaining after that deadline will revert to the standard interest rate which can be three times higher than the promotional rate. Debt consolidation may work best for people who have regular, predictable income so that they can commit to the monthly consolidated payment and their only issue is the high interest rates. Debt consolidation also assumes that you can obtain financing at a lower interest rate than your current credit cards, which usually necessitates a minimum credit score if not also a pledge of collateral to secure the consolidation loan. Debt consolidation usually will not work well for people who cannot afford a consolidated loan payment (even at lower interest) or for those who cannot obtain new credit due to a low credit score and/or lack of collateral.

Debt settlement (or debt negotiation) is an option that occasionally makes more sense than filing bankruptcy, particularly for higher income individuals, individuals with substantial assets or individuals with access to cash to pay off just a few debts at a reduced balance. Debt settlement involves negotiating a final settlement of the debt and release from future personal liability one-by-one with each creditor. Depending on the number of debts that need to be settled and how far into default each debt is, the debt settlement process can be tedious, expensive and can easily take two or more years to complete with all creditors. There is always the risk that until the debt is fully settled, the creditor can still collect on the full balance and initiate a lawsuit against you. Depending on individual circumstances, debts will typically settle for 25% to 75% of the amount owed and payment is required in either one lump sum or series of payments over no more than six months. Because inevitably some of the debt is repaid and you may end up incurring attorney fees for assistance with the process, debt settlement is almost always more costly overall than a standard chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding.

Finally and unlike what happens when a debt is discharged in bankruptcy, beware that a debt settled for less than the full amount owed often will result in your receiving a Form 1099 for the amount forgiven which is treated as income for tax purposes (with few exceptions, see Received a 1099-Misc on Cancelled Debt? You May Qualify for Exclusion from Taxes if You Were Insolvent or Filed Bankruptcy). For these reasons, debt settlement can be a far more expensive and time-consuming option than bankruptcy.

In bankruptcy, most unsecured debts are discharged in full and the majority of chapter 7 debtors pay nothing more than the attorney fee and filing fee. In chapter 13, some percentage of the debts is repaid but the total paid into a chapter 13 plan can still be significantly less than what a debt settlement may cost.

For help in assessing of your debt resolution options, contact Wartchow Law Office located in Edina, Minnesota.

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