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Why debt settlement companies are the wrong way to deal with high credit card debt

Credit card logos are displayed on a business's door
Most people who struggle with credit card debt would be better off filing bankruptcy or using a credit counseling service’s debt management program and not turning to debt settlement companies.
(Steven Senne / Associated Press)
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Dear Liz: Finance companies claim if you owe too much credit card debt that by law you need not pay it all back, but can retire some or most of this debt. They say this is not a credit card debt reduction program through balance transfers or debt consolidation loans. It sounds more like a faux semi-bankruptcy declaration. Are you familiar with these programs? They sound too good to be true.

Answer: Most likely you’re seeing advertisements for debt settlement companies. With debt settlement, the debtor stops making payments on their credit card debt, hoping that the issuers eventually will settle for less than what is owed. Results aren’t guaranteed and the process often takes a few years.

As you might expect, not making payments can lead to significant credit score damage as well as creditor lawsuits. In addition, any amounts that are forgiven in this process may be considered taxable income to the debtor. You’ll also pay fees to the debt settlement company if you hire one to handle these negotiations. The fees and taxes can significantly offset any savings achieved through the process.

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Most people who struggle with credit card debt would be better off filing bankruptcy or using a credit counseling service’s debt management program.

Debt management programs enable people to pay off what they owe over three to five years, typically at reduced interest rates. Bankruptcy, meanwhile, allows credit card debt to be legally erased without triggering a tax bill. The most common form of bankruptcy, Chapter 7, usually takes just a few months, after which people can begin rebuilding their credit.

There are big differences between debt consolidation and debt settlement programs. Also, spousal vs. divorced spousal Social Security benefits. And Medicare.

Oct. 23, 2021

Transferring a house to heirs

Dear Liz: We are updating our estate plan to account for the transferral of our home to our six children when we die. The home currently has a large mortgage balance on it. We would prefer that it not have to go through probate, and that any outstanding mortgage balance would not be immediately due. I know there are various options for the transferral, all with pros and cons. Do you have any recommended best practices for our situation?

Answer: Yes. Discuss the situation with an experienced estate planning attorney, who can give you personalized advice. Estate planning can get complicated fast, and expert guidance is typically worth the cost.

Your attorney probably will suggest creating a living trust to avoid probate, the court process for settling an estate. Another way to avoid probate in many states is a transfer-on-death deed. The deed can be a solution for smaller estates, but the trust allows you to transfer other assets in addition to your home, provides for the administration of your estate and helps you plan for incapacity, as well.

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You probably don’t need to worry about your lender immediately calling in your loan. Your mortgage may include a clause that technically makes the full balance due if the home is sold or transferred. While the estate is being settled, though, inheritors typically are protected from these clauses by state and federal law as long as payments continue to be made. Your attorney can provide more details on the protections in your state.

With a living trust, your successor trustee will be able to access other funds in the trust to make the payments while the estate is being settled, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. With a transfer-on-death deed, the heirs would be responsible for making the payments.

Inheritors often can assume a mortgage, but having six people own one house would be unwieldy, at best. Most probably, the best solution would be to have the estate continue to make the mortgage payments until the home is sold.

Your current and former spouses could be eligible for Social Security benefits, subject to certain requirements.

Oct. 29, 2023

Survivor benefits for estranged spouse

Dear Liz: My dad recently passed away. He was technically married, however his wife kicked him out of their home three years prior to his passing, making him homeless. Is she eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits?

Answer: Social Security doesn’t try to gauge how married a couple was. As long as they were legally wed, she could be eligible for a survivor benefit.

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Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.

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