Debt Settlement vs. Bankruptcy

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Debt settlement vs. bankruptcy might seem like the definition of a financial dilemma — the choice between a punch in the gut or a sharp stick in the eye.

But debt settlement and bankruptcy offer solutions to the same problem — finding the most direct road out of debt — and they each carry advantages and disadvantages. Choosing the right one is tricky. Bottom line: If your debts are so massive you can’t imagine repaying them, it’s time to evaluate both options to restore your credit health and financial well-being.

Differences Between Debt Settlement & Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy can offer the fastest path out of debt, but the long-term impact on your credit is severe. Bankruptcy will stay on credit reports for 7-10 years, which will impede your ability to get a loan, receive a credit card or buy a home. Bankruptcy, which is adjudicated in federal court, either wipes out your personal debt (Chapter 7) or creates a 3-5 year plan for repaying creditors (Chapter 13).

Debt settlement doesn’t require a court filing and — unlike bankruptcy — can often be handled without a lawyer or financial counseling. A settlement is a deal you negotiate with creditors to pay less than the amount owed, usually with a lump-sum payment

OK, so why would creditors want to settle your debts for less than you owe?

Because they know you can always file for bankruptcy, which could eliminate their ability to collect anything from you. So, they are often willing to accept less than what is owed through debt settlement.

If you conclude that you can’t afford even the reduced payment negotiated from debt settlement, bankruptcy could be the best option.

Personal bankruptcy comes in two varieties: Chapter 13 is essentially a payment plan that takes three to five years; Chapter 7 clears your unsecured personal debts in 6-8 months, but comes with potential pitfalls. If you own a home, you will be able to keep it under Chapter 13, though you will need to make mortgage payments after you exit bankruptcy court. If you file Chapter 7, you can keep your home if you don’t have much equity in it and you stay current on payments

If you have significant equity,  your home might qualify as exempt in some states, but other states allow bankruptcy trustees to sell your home to raise money to repay creditors. Chapter 7 also requires you make less than your state’s median income (half salaries above the number, half below) for a family your size.

Bankruptcy frees you from debt collection, but the headaches can linger for years. Debt settlement without bankruptcy can take more time but — if negotiated properly —  can do less damage to your credit. Debt settlement stays on your credit report for seven years, but has less negative impact on your credit score.

Understanding the pros and cons of debt settlement vs. bankruptcy and making the smartest choice can have a big impact on your future finances.

 When to Consider Debt Settlement or Bankruptcy

If your monthly debt payments, excluding mortgage or rent, exceed 20% of your income, you have a debt problem that requires action. The seriousness of the problem, and your ability and commitment to overcoming it, will determine whether a debt settlement plan or bankruptcy is the better option.

Here are some scenarios in which debt settlement may provide the better path out of debt:

  • You’re able and willing to negotiate with creditors or debt collectors on a settlement plan that you can afford.
  • Your creditors will agree to greatly reduce your debt burden in exchange for your commitment to make a lump-sum payment.
  • Your income is stable enough that you can continue to pay your mortgage or rent and other essential bills in addition to the payments required under a debt settlement, while still saving some money for emergency expenses.

Here are some scenarios in which bankruptcy is the better option:

  • All other options for debt relief have been exhausted or deemed insufficient, making bankruptcy protection a “last resort.”
  • You’re at risk of losing your home to foreclosure, but Chapter 13 bankruptcy can help you get caught up on your payments.
  • Making debt payments would require you to dip into your emergency or retirement savings. Retirement savings such as 401(k) accounts and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are protected in bankruptcy proceedings.
  • You cannot make any payments on your debt without resorting to payday loans, which charge exorbitant interest rates.
  • You’ve lost your job and lack the means to make debt settlement payments.
  • Any attempt to get out of debt is going to take more than five years.

It’s important to remember these are general guidelines. Anyone  weighing the pros and cons of debt settlement vs. bankruptcy should consult with a nonprofit credit counselor. Counselors from National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) member agencies such as InCharge Debt Solutions can help evaluate your current financial situation and the various debt relief options  available to you.

Impact of Bankruptcy and Debt Settlement on Credit

Both bankruptcy and debt settlement can reduce your creditworthiness and lower your credit, or FICO, score for years. Debt Settlement will stay on your credit report for seven years. Bankruptcy, no matter which chapter you file under, is certain to bring down your score. The higher your score is to begin with, the more it will drop.

Credit Score After Bankruptcy

Your credit score will plummet, whether you’re using Chapter 7 or Chapter 13. The higher your credit score, the more it will plummet. Wherever it starts, it likely will end in the 530-560 range, which is regarded as poor credit.

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy remains on your credit report for 10 years from the date of filing; a Chapter 13 stays on the report for seven years.

Bankruptcy laws regulate what happens to your money when your case is settled. Chapter 7 cases typically clear your debts, while Chapter 13 requires partial repayment. A bankruptcy judge will decide how much you need to repay based on laws in your state.

Debt Settlement Credit Score Impact

Credit scores plunge 75-100 points after a debt settlement because it’s an admission you didn’t pay your debts as agreed. The higher your credit score, the more it will drop. The drop is not as great as it is with bankruptcy, but it’s still significant.

Debt settlement will be on your credit report for seven years and definitely impact your ability to get a loan and the interest rate you pay, if you are approved.

Debt settlement typically requires that you make a lump-sum payment to clear your account. It’s generally advised that you stop making monthly minimum payments until you’ve negotiated a settlement plan, as creditors will be more inclined to negotiate with you if they’re no longer receiving any payments on your debt. But stopping payment can further damage your credit score and expose you to late fees, additional interest charges, collection efforts and lawsuits.

The possible advantage to settlement is that in exchange for a payment, creditors will sometimes agree to report the settlement as “paid as agreed,” which means your score won’t get hit with negative points like it would if it were reported as just “settled.”   Not all creditors report information to the three credit reporting bureaus so it’s possible, though not probable, that your settlement may not get reported.

» Learn More: How Long Does Debt Settlement Affect Your Credit?

Advantages and Disadvantages of Debt Settlement

Debt settlement can be the best way out of a financial mess, but it is full of pitfalls, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns: “Debt settlement may well leave you deeper in debt than you were when you started.” Now there’s a sobering thought.

The biggest problem is convincing a creditor, or multiple creditors, to accept less than they are owed. Creditors aren’t obligated to enter a settlement agreement, but many are willing if they believe you can’t pay and otherwise will file for bankruptcy protection. If that happens, it means they receive little or nothing.

Some people hire a debt settlement firm to represent them; others negotiate themselves. The advantage to contracting with a debt settlor is saving time and avoiding the hassle of negotiating yourself. But the CFPB warns: “Dealing with debt settlement companies can be risky.”

If you decide to pursue debt settlement on your own, it’s vitally important you educate yourself on the details of the debt that you owe, develop a realistic plan on how much you can save each month based on your current financial situation, and negotiate with creditors or collectors with a sensible repayment plan that they will agree to in writing.

Here’s a quick look at some of the pros and cons of debt settlement:

Advantages to Settling a Debt:

  • Access to free credit counseling that can help you create and negotiate a debt settlement plan.
  • Pay only part of what you owe to become debt free.
  • Use a debt settlement company to negotiate with creditors and avoid the time and expense involved in bankruptcy.

Disadvantages to Debt Settlement:

  •  There is no guarantee creditors will negotiate with you.
  • Stopping payments to convince creditors you are serious about not paying could result in your accounts going into collection and/or legal actions aimed at garnishing your wages, further damaging your credit as your debt increases.
  • When you stop payments so you can save for a “lump-sum” offer, late-fee penalties and accrued interest will increase the size of your debt.
  • If you settle a debt, state and federal tax collection will treat the forgiven amount as income and require you to pay taxes on it.
  • Debt settlement companies often charge expensive fees, and not all creditors are willing to work with the one you select.
  • Debt settlement will damage your credit score and your ability to obtain credit in the future.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy chapters 7 and 13 are the two avenues individuals can use to clear their debts through the courts. Chapter 7 eliminates your debts, but in some states it might require you to liquidate all you own, including your car and house, to help compensate your creditors.

Chapter 13 protects your home from foreclosure but requires that you partially repay creditors over a 3-5 year period. Because it requires repayment, it is often called “wage earner’s bankruptcy.”

Both chapters will cause long-lasting damage to your credit report. In addition, student loan debt, income taxes and child support payments can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, so you will still be obligated to repay them.

Advantages to Chapter 7 Bankruptcy:

Disadvantages to Chapter 7 Bankruptcy:

  • Damages credit report for 10 years
  • Some states allow seizure and sale of your home and other properties. You should review what is exempt in your state
  • Requires that you wait eight years before filing again under Chapter 7

 Advantages to Chapter 13 Bankruptcy:

  • Protects your property, including your house and car, from foreclosure and repossession to cover debts
  • After you complete required payments, you receive a discharge of debt
  • You aren’t required to pay taxes on forgiven debt
  • Waiting period before you can file again is two years – six years less than under Chapter 7

Disadvantages to Chapter 13 Bankruptcy:

  • Requires you follow a court-ordered payment plan that lasts 3-5 years
  • Reduces your credit score for years, making it difficult to borrow money or obtain credit

Can You File for Bankruptcy after Debt Settlement?

Yes. In fact, that route to clearing debt is fairly well-traveled. Many people understandably consider bankruptcy a last-resort solution and often first try other debt solutions such as debt consolidation, debt management plans and debt settlement.

Filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy removes the obligation to pay your debt. That applies to the terms of the original agreement as well as the agreement you negotiated with your creditors as part of your debt settlement.

A successful debt settlement with a creditor can be subject to a preference avoidance action brought by a bankruptcy trustee. The trustee can recover those funds if you successfully settled one or more accounts and paid more than $600 to a creditor in the 90 days before the bankruptcy filing. A preference avoidance means that money paid to settle a debt with a creditor will be divided up among the other unsecured creditors you still owe.

Debt Settlement vs. Bankruptcy: Which Is Better?

If everyone in debt found themselves in the same predicament, there might be a blanket answer to this question. Of course, that’s not the case, and where debt settlement may be the right option in one situation, bankruptcy might be preferable in another. And in a third scenario, neither may be the best solution.

The bad news is that resolving serious debt woes is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The good news is that there are many potential routes out of debt, and a nonprofit credit counselor such as the ones at InCharge Debt Solutions are well-equipped to help point you in the right direction — whether it be debt settlement, bankruptcy, or other debt relief options such as debt consolidation.

Before choosing a particular option, speak with a credit counselor at InCharge, who can evaluate your specific situation and discuss the pros and cons that each potential solution offers.

If bankruptcy is ultimately determined the best option for escaping your debt crisis, InCharge Debt Solutions offers bankruptcy education classes that allow you to complete the credit counseling and debtor education requirements for entering and exiting bankruptcy. The classes, which include online instruction and a personal counseling session via telephone, provide advice on your current financial situation and instruction on money management, budgeting and how to develop and stick to a plan that will lead to a brighter financial future.


About The Author

Robert Shaw

After a 45-year career in journalism, Robert's focus is helping consumers cope with personal finance issues. Finding solutions to paying off credit card debt, mortgage payments and that darn student loan, is far more fulfilling than explaining why the Cleveland Browns can't win (It's the quarterback!!). Robert wrote about the Browns and all Cleveland sports as a columnist at the Plain Dealer before transitioning to television sports commentary at WKYC. Now, his passion is helping people navigate their personal finances.


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