Q&A: How to Handle Credit Card Debt?

Dear Liz: My wife and I owe about $46,000 in credit card debt. We are considering a debt consolidation plan in which our debt would be reduced to about $27,000. According to what I've read and what's included in the paperwork, any reduction in our debt may be reported to the IRS as income. I'm assuming this would not only increase our tax burden but could result in the forfeiture of some of my Social Security benefits. Am I correct in these assumptions?

Answer: What you're considering is debt settlement, not debt consolidation.

With debt consolidation, you get one loan to pay off other, smaller debts in full. The right debt consolidation loan would offer a fixed interest rate and would allow you to pay off what you owe within three to five years.

Debt settlement, on the other hand, means you're trying to get your creditors to accept less than what you owe. Debt settlement typically requires that you stop making payments to your creditors, which will trash your credit scores and could lead to lawsuits. You typically accrue interest, late fees and penalties that could offset or even wipe out any savings the debt-settlement company is promising you.

And the fact that the company seems to be promising you specific results, such as a $19,000 reduction in your debt, is a red flag all on its own. Your creditors don't have any obligation to settle with you, and a debt settlement company shouldn't promise that it can make the debt disappear.

To answer your specific questions: Yes, any debt that is "forgiven" in a settlement is considered income that can be taxed. It isn't considered earned income, however, and so doesn't trigger the Social Security earnings test that can reduce your benefits.

You'd be wise to read what the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have to say about debt settlement on their sites. In the vast majority of cases, you're better off avoiding this option. Pay off what you owe if you can. If you can't, explore a debt management plan offered by a nonprofit credit counselor and also make an appointment with a bankruptcy attorney so you understand all your options.

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