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Roughly one in three Americans have delinquent debt according to 2022 credit data from The Urban Institute. At 16%, medical debt makes up the highest percentage of debt delinquency, but consumers also default on student loans, auto loans and credit card debt.
If someone's debt is so large that making payments becomes unmanageable (or if paying off the balances would take an unthinkable number of years), consumers may benefit from debt relief, also called debt settlement.
While there are risks involved, debt relief companies can help consumers negotiate their debts down, either with the original lender/card issuer or with a collections agency. This gives people who are in over their heads a chance to clear away their balances at a lower cost.
In exchange for a professional fee, debt settlement professionals (often lawyers) advocate on behalf of their clients to convince lenders to agree to a lump-sum settlement amount that absolves the borrower of outstanding debt.
Lenders are under no obligation to accept these settlement proposals, but they often do it to cut their losses and recoup expenses. Meanwhile, clients benefit from having their debt essentially wiped away for much less than the original balance. However, when you have a significant portion of debt forgiven, the IRS collects taxes on the difference between what was owed and what was actually paid.
"You will be taxed on any forgiven debt over $600," explains Leslie H. Tayne, a debt relief attorney and founder of Tayne Law Group. "There are some exceptions," she tells CNBC Select, "but even if you do end up paying taxes on [the forgiven debt], you'll generally still be better off than if you had to pay the full sum."
Below, Tayne tells CNBC Select how debt forgiveness works, what kind of debt is taxable and how debt relief appears on your credit report.
Debt relief is a last-resort option that can help debtors get out from under overwhelming balances. The process can take a few years, but when it's successful debtors can pay off their debt for less than they actually owe. However, it's important to be realistic about what debt forgiveness can offer you.
It's rare that debt settlement will let you off the hook for five-figure sums unless you can prove severe hardship, says Tayne. For instance, if you owed $30,000 in credit card debt and only offer to pay $10,000, it's unlikely that your lender would accept this debt settlement offer. And as Tayne learned by defaulting on her own student loans, by the time it becomes necessary to negotiate a debt settlement, you've usually paid far more in interest and late fees than you would have if you had made your monthly payments from the beginning.
Nonetheless, debt forgiveness is a viable option when you have few other choices. Similar to working with a credit counselor, debt settlement professionals speak directly with your lenders on your behalf. However, according to the CFPB, debt settlement has a reputation for being riskier than credit counseling because debt settlement lawyers negotiate with your lenders to get them to accept less than you owe. Meanwhile, nonprofit credit counselors tend to focus more on educational services including budgeting, saving and developing an individual debt payoff strategy.
In both cases, check out the debt relief firm or organization with your state Attorney General and local consumer protection agency to learn if any consumer complaints are on file. For an extra layer of protection, you can find out if debt relief companies must be licensed to work in your state and confirm that the company you're working with has appropriate credentials.
To help you with your search, CNBC Select researched more than a dozen debt relief companies and ranked New Era Debt Solutions as the best overall due to its lower fees and high customer satisfaction ratings. If you have a large amount of debt (think more than $10,000), consider National Debt Relief.
14% to 23% of enrolled original debt
New Era Debt Solutions has slightly lower fees than some of the other debt relief services we rated. It's been in business for 22 years, and is rated 4.93 out of 5 for customer satisfaction through the Better Business Bureau.
15% to 25% of enrolled debt
National Debt Relief has been in business since 2009, and has helped hundreds of thousands of people get out of debt. While National Debt Relief won't be a fit for people who owe less than $10,000, it can be a good option for those with large debts.
If you are able to get a settlement that's significantly less than your total debts owed, you will be taxed on any forgiven debt over $600.
"The creditor is required to file a 1099-C form with the IRS, which will detail the amount of your settled debt," says Tayne. Similar to income tax forms, you will also receive a copy of the 1099-C forgiveness of debt form from the forgiving creditor in the tax year the final payment is made.
"That form will give you the amount forgiven," says Tayne, which is the amount that's considered taxable income. There is a specific line for this purpose on your tax forms.
There are some exceptions and exclusions to this rule, which are outlined below. But even if you do end up paying taxes on your forgiven debt, "you'll generally still be better off than if you had to pay the full sum," Tayne argues.
In some cases, canceled or forgiven debts can be eliminated from your taxable income. These are considered exceptions. Other kinds of debt may be lowered or reduced, but not outright eliminated. The IRS calls these kinds of debt exclusions. When you fill out your tax forms, exceptions are applied before exclusions.
Below, we outline what kinds of debt forgiveness are not considered taxable, according to the IRS.
Taxpayers might be able to eliminate the following types of canceled debt from their taxable income:
- Gifts and bequests
- Certain student loans (e.g., doctors, nurses, and teachers serving in rural or low-income areas)
- Deductible debt (e.g., home mortgage interest that would have been deductible on Schedule A)
- Price reduced after purchase (e.g., debt on solvent taxpayer's property is reduced by the seller; basis of property must be reduced)
Some types of debt may be lowered or reduced, but they must be filed as an exclusion using Form 982. They are:
- Discharge of debt through bankruptcy
- Discharge of debt of insolvent taxpayer
- Discharge of qualified farm indebtedness
- Discharge of qualified real property business indebtedness
- Discharge of qualified principal residence indebtedness
When navigating these exemptions and exclusions, be sure to work with a certified tax professional with experience in debt settlement.
The details of your debt forgiveness plan will not show up on your credit report, says Tayne. What was once delinquent debt will simply show up as "settled," rather than "paid in full." When employers and lenders do a hard pull of your credit history, they won't see any details beyond this.
Debt settlement can also actually help your credit score in the long run, because you're no longer delinquent on payments and the debt is cleared.
"Your credit may be temporarily damaged, but it will come back up quickly," Tayne says. "Generally, it does work out in the debtor's favor to settle the debt, especially if simply paying it off isn't really an option."
Debt settlement can be a lifesaver for people who feel buried by their credit card bills, but there are some other options if you simply need to get a better handle on your payments.
Paying off credit card debt with a balance transfer card or a debt consolidation loan is generally less risky than debt settlement when you do your research beforehand. Pairing a 0% APR credit card with either of the time-tested snowball or avalanche methods might be quicker and end up saving you more money.
Balance transfers typically charge fees between 2% and 5%, unless you're approved for a no-fee balance transfer card. For instance, the Citi Double Cash® Card charges an intro balance transfer fee of 3% of each transfer (minimum $5) completed within the first four months of account opening. After that, your fee will be 5% of each transfer (minimum $5; see rates and fees).
Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases. To earn cash back, pay at least the minimum due on time. Plus, for a limited time, earn 5% total cash back on hotel, car rentals and attractions booked on the Citi Travel℠ portal through 12/31/24
Earn $200 cash back after you spend $1,500 on purchases in the first 6 months of account opening. This bonus offer will be fulfilled as 20,000 ThankYou® Points, which can be redeemed for $200 cash back.
0% for the first 18 months on balance transfers; N/A for purchases
19.24% - 29.24% variable
Balance transfer fee
For balance transfers completed within 4 months of account opening, an intro balance transfer fee of 3% of each transfer ($5 minimum) applies; after that, a balance transfer fee of 5% of each transfer ($5 minimum) applies
Foreign transaction fee
See rates and fees. Terms apply.
Read our Citi Double Cash® Card review.
If you're looking for a debt consolidation loan, consider LightStream for its same-day funding, fixed and low interest rates (plus an autopay discount), variety of term lengths and lack of origination fees, administration fees or early payoff fees. You'll need good or excellent credit to qualify, though.
Annual Percentage Rate (APR)
7.99% - 25.99%* APR with AutoPay
Debt consolidation, home improvement, auto financing, medical expenses, and others
$5,000 to $100,000
24 to 144 months* dependent on loan purpose
Early payoff penalty
Terms apply. *AutoPay discount is only available prior to loan funding. Rates without AutoPay are 0.50% points higher. Excellent credit required for lowest rate. Rates vary by loan purpose.
If you have less-than-stellar or bad credit, consider Upstart, a top personal loan provider that approves applicants with lower credit scores by considering additional factors like education and employment, and allowing you to apply with a co-applicant. Upstart offers next-day funding and doesn't charge early payoff fees.
Annual Percentage Rate (APR)
6.40% - 35.99%
Debt consolidation, credit card refinancing, wedding, moving or medical
$1,000 to $50,000
36 and 60 months
FICO or Vantage score of 600 (but will accept applicants whose credit history is so insufficient they don't have a credit score)
0% to 12% of the target amount
Early payoff penalty
The greater of 5% of monthly past due amount or $15
Delinquent debt can impact your credit history, but working with a debt settlement professional is one way to move on from the past. You can settle your debt for less than you originally owed, but you will have to claim the forgiven amount as taxable income.
Choosing to settle your debt is a personal decision that's based on your financial situation. It depends on the amount and kind of debt you have, your current and future income and what kind of assets you have in your name. Never offer to settle your debt unless you can follow through with a lump-sum payment. If you're struggling to meet your minimum payments or have had debt go to collections, search for a local debt-relief lawyer or debt professional with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.
At CNBC Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. For this story, we interviewed Leslie H. Tayne, a debt relief attorney and founder of Tayne Law Group.
At CNBC Select, our mission is to provide our readers with high-quality service journalism and comprehensive consumer advice so they can make informed decisions with their money. Every debt relief service review is based on rigorous reporting by our team of expert writers and editors with extensive knowledge of debt relief products. While CNBC Select earns a commission from affiliate partners on many offers and links, we create all our content without input from our commercial team or any outside third parties, and we pride ourselves on our journalistic standards and ethics. See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best debt relief companies.
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