Dear Liz: Someone recently asked you about whether they were responsible for their mother’s credit card debt, and at the end of your answer you suggested she talk to a bankruptcy attorney. How can you promote that kind of irresponsibility?
Answer: Some people are quite firm in their belief that bankruptcy should never be an option — even for elderly widows on fixed incomes with no hope of ever paying off their debts. But if enough things go wrong in their lives, these anti-bankruptcy folks might find themselves grateful that there’s a legal way out of the debtors’ prison that their lives would become.
Dear Liz: I’m a 33-year-old mother who lost my full-time job during the recession in 2009. I may have my “stuff” together again, but am considering filing bankruptcy. Each month I’m spending almost half (yes half!) of my income on debt payments to credit cards, loans and medical bills. Each month after all my bills are paid and groceries are bought, I have zero dollars left over to save. Even after losing my job, I made sure to always make those payments, so my credit is decent. Last I checked my credit score was hovering right around 700. I really have no reason to have good credit at this time, as I don’t have any need for a large purchase. Should I file or pay back my debts? Is filing for bankruptcy a good idea if it allows me to build a savings account and start putting money back into a 401(k)?
Answer: A bankruptcy filing would devastate your credit scores, and that may create more problems than you think. Credit information is used by insurers to determine premiums, by landlords to evaluate applicants and by wireless carriers and utilities to set deposit requirements.
At the same time, it makes little sense to continue to struggle against a mound of debt if you’re not making a dent in the pile. If it would take you five years or more to repay what you owe, you should at least consider filing for bankruptcy. Why five years? Because that’s how long you’d be required to make payments under a Chapter 13 repayment plan.
Most people, however, qualify for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy, which is typically preferable since it’s faster (three to four months, versus five years) and erases credit card and medical bills. An experienced bankruptcy attorney can advise you and help you understand the ramifications of filing.
If lower interest rates might help you pay off your debt within five years, you also should consider an appointment with a credit counselor associated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org). These nonprofits can set you up with debt management plans that may offer lower rates on your credit card debt.
Most people feel an obligation to pay what they owe, but that often leads to fruitless struggles against impossible debts. Bankruptcy laws allow individuals a fresh start so that they can take care of themselves and their families. Among your many financial obligations is the one to support yourself in retirement, and every year you delay saving will make it that much harder to accumulate a reasonable nest egg.
Dear Liz: In February 2015, it will be seven years since my bankruptcy. I have worked hard to rebuild my credit, and my credit score is 735. What do I need to do to make sure my bankruptcy drops off at the seven-year mark?
Answer: By federal law, most negative marks must be removed from credit reports after seven years — but bankruptcy is one of the exceptions. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is the most common, can stay on your reports for up to 10 years from the date you filed. Chapter 13 bankruptcies are typically dropped after seven years. In either case, you shouldn’t need to do anything. Credit bureaus should delete the information automatically. If they don’t, contact the bureaus and request the deletion, but that usually isn’t necessary.
If you have to live with bankruptcy on your reports for a few more years, you shouldn’t be discouraged. It seems you’ve done a good job rebuilding your credit, and your scores should continue to rise as long as you handle credit responsibly.
Dear Liz: You recently suggested people consider putting their charitable donations on automatic. While I have automatic deductions for savings because I do not want to constantly remind myself to do it, I want to remind myself of all other expenses. For me, prudent money management requires attention to all expenses. Your thoughts?
Answer: Many people find that automatic payments make their lives easier. They’re able to meet their obligations (and avoid late fees, in the case of bill payments) while minimizing time spent in repetitive tasks each month.
But none of your expenses should be “out of sight, out of mind.” Automatic payments don’t eliminate the need to carefully review your credit card and bank transactions each month. Reviewing your bills periodically, and making adjustments as necessary, is an important part of responsible money management regardless of whether you take advantage of automatic transfers.
Dear Liz: In a recent column, you fielded a query from parents whose son took out student loans in the mother’s name. You wrote, “If your only income is from Social Security and you don’t have any other property a creditor can legally take, you may be ‘judgment proof,'” which means “a creditor wouldn’t be able to collect on a judgment against you.”
I understand this advice was meant for the mom. But could it equally apply to the borrower who benefited from the loan?
In my case, I will be 70 next year and my only income is Social Security. I owe about $80,000 in private student loans and about $80,000 in federal student loans. I can’t afford to pay either loan. Is there hope for me to get out from under this burden by being judgment-proof? Right now, I can’t afford to see a bankruptcy attorney. It is a struggle just to pay the rent and put some food on my table.
Answer: You can’t afford not to see a bankruptcy attorney. Federal student loan collectors have enormous powers to collect, including taking a portion of your Social Security check.
The concept of being “judgment proof” applies to collections of private student loans. Collectors for those loans may be held at bay if you are, indeed, judgment proof. But you really want an experienced bankruptcy attorney to review your situation to make sure that’s the case. Fortunately, many bankruptcy attorneys offer free or discounted initial sessions. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.
Dear Liz: I co-signed a credit card for someone and the person defaulted on payment. I started making payments but could not continue because I became unemployed. The debt started at $15,631.23 but has gone up to $17,088.08 because of interest and fees. I previously had to go to court because my bank account was frozen. I recently got a notice about this again. Should I file for bankruptcy or try contacting the attorneys who are seeking payment? I am working part-time and have a tight budget. I don’t have anything saved and am living from paycheck to paycheck.
Answer: You should have gone to a bankruptcy attorney the first time you got sued.
Many people try to ignore their debts or hope that collection agencies will be lenient. That’s not a good strategy at a time when collectors are increasingly willing to file lawsuits to get paid, said Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com. Once collectors have a judgment against you, they can freeze your bank accounts or garnishee your paycheck.
If you don’t have anything saved and can’t come up with any money for payments, you have little leverage in dealing with a collection agency. Bankruptcy may be your only recourse to get these collection efforts to stop.
A bankruptcy attorney can let you know whether you are “judgment proof,” which basically means that you have and make too little for a creditor to collect on any judgments. If you are judgment proof, you may not need to file for bankruptcy, but you may have to deal with frozen accounts and regular trips to court when a collector oversteps.
You can get a referral from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.
The only silver lining of this situation is that you’ve provided other people with a clear lesson in why they shouldn’t co-sign a credit card or any other loan for someone else.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are in a huge amount of debt. I understand that there are nonprofit agencies that can sit down with us and help us develop repayment plans and strategies. How do I find a reputable one?
Answer: Contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at (800) 388-2227 for a referral to a legitimate, accredited, nonprofit credit counseling agency in your area. A counselor can review your financial situation, help you with budgeting and see whether you’re a candidate for a debt management plan, which would allow you to pay off your credit card debt over time, perhaps at a lower interest rate.
You also should consider making an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org. A credit counselor may try to steer you away from bankruptcy, whereas an attorney can let you know if it might be a better option.
Unfortunately, many people wait too long before they contact a credit counselor. They may be approved for a debt management plan but find themselves unable to stick with the plan long enough to pay off their debt. In other words, they continue to struggle with debt that they ultimately can’t pay. Understanding all your options, including bankruptcy, can help you make a better choice about what to do next.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are wondering whether it is time to file for bankruptcy. We have about $20,000 in credit card debt, largely because of a home addition and remodeling project my husband began five years ago. It has been much more costly and time consuming than he anticipated and is not even close to being finished. That prevents us from being able to refinance, which would free up money to pay our debt.
A mortgage broker recently suggested we apply for a home equity line to get enough cash for materials and labor to finish this project. We pay our mortgage and two car loans on time and make at least minimum payments on the cards.
My husband’s health has been declining, making it very difficult for him to do physical work on this project, and one of our kids has had two surgeries in the last few years, so there have been a lot of medical bills as well. How should we proceed?
Answer: You’re having trouble managing the debt you already have, so it’s definitely risky take on more. On the other hand, if you have enough home equity to get a line of credit, that could be a path out of this mess.
First, though, make an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org). A credit card balance of $20,000 isn’t by itself insurmountable, depending on your income, but the fact that you’re not paying much more than the minimums on your cards is a huge red flag — as are those medical bills.
The lawyer can review your situation and let you know whether bankruptcy is even a reasonable option. Each state’s laws differ, so you need to consult an expert.
If you decide instead to take out the home equity line, make sure you hire a competent and well-recommended contractor to finish what your husband started. The last thing you need is for someone else to botch the job.
Dear Liz: I had credit scores over 800 with no late payments ever. Unfortunately, a medical issue required me to charge $24,500 to a credit card. That led to a bankruptcy, which was discharged in July 2011. My scores dropped to 672, and they’re currently around 680. I’m paying two unsecured credit cards in full each month plus an auto loan that was reaffirmed in bankruptcy. I would like to continue rehabilitating my scores by applying for another loan. When a company requests my credit scores, does it also see my bankruptcy, and would that prevent me from getting credit?
Answer: Some lenders look just at credit scores, while others request credit reports along with your scores. Your bankruptcy or your scores could cause lenders to charge a higher interest rate or refuse to give you credit.
It’s not clear that the scores you’re seeing are FICO scores, however. A bankruptcy would have dropped your FICOs into the 500s, and it’s unlikely they would return to the high 600s in less than a year. What you may be seeing are VantageScores, which have a different score range: 500 to 990, compared with FICO’s 300 to 850.
If you want to see your FICO scores, which are the ones most lenders use, you can buy them for about $20 each at MyFico.com. Scores offered at other sites typically aren’t FICO scores but may be VantageScores or “consumer education scores” that aren’t widely used by lenders.
You’re doing the right things by using a mix of credit (credit cards and an installment loan) and paying your bills on time. You should know, though, that there’s no way to quickly restore your scores to their old levels. It typically takes seven to 10 years for FICOs to recover from a bankruptcy.
But let’s back up a minute. You almost certainly made a mistake by charging your medical care to a credit card. You may have been able to qualify for a discount on your care if you hadn’t. Many medical providers offer charity programs that cut or eliminate the bill for people making up to 400% of the federal poverty line. A single person could make up to $44,680 and still qualify for a break under many providers’ programs.
If you make too much to qualify for financial aid, you could still have negotiated a discount by asking the provider to charge you the same rate that its largest insurer pays. The uninsured are often charged a much higher “sticker price” for medical care than what insurers pay, but if asked, many providers are willing to provide the same discounts.
If nothing else, you probably could have qualified for an interest-free payment program. Once you charged the bill to your card, however, you lost all your leverage to get a discount.