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Less Than Full Balance Plans and the Problems They Create for Credit Counselors

For many years debt relief plan providers, such as nonprofit credit counselors, and debt settlement service providers, have been seen as two separate and distinct structures in the debt relief services industry. These two sides of the industry have often been at odds with one another. While debt settlement providers have never come together as a unified voice to slam the debt management side, the nonprofit DMP providers have frequently come together (and acted individually), to vilify the concept of debt settlement itself, and later, to call out what they see as bad business practices found throughout the debt settlement side of the industry.

From my view, both DMP and debt settlement service providers get it wrong when marketing and providing their specific debt relief tool.

What follows focuses mostly on the aspersions nonprofit credit counseling agencies (CCA’s) lob at the other side while they actively, yet quietly, attempt to carve out a niche for themselves that would enable them to offer “Less Than Full Balance Plans” or “Credit Solution Plans” – which is just word play for their offering debt settlement (can’t use a term they have vilified for years). I should point out that I have been publicly critical of some of the same debt settlement business practices that credit counselors have taken concern with. I am equally concerned with what I recognize as problematic areas with DMP’s and those who offer them as they attempt to break into servicing debt settlement plans.

CCA’s who interact with consumers who are struggling to pay the bills have been limited to offering DMP’s. It’s traditionally been the only tool in their tool box. The DMP implementation is how they generate revenue from both the consumer on a monthly basis, and from participating banks that offer charitable and tax deductible fair share and grant contributions to the CCA’s as a benefit for enrolling and managing the banks collection function. CCA’s have been, and continue to, lose relevancy in the market place. There are a bevy of reasons for the loss of DMP relevancy and applicability in the market place. Here are just two reasons.

  • Banks offer DMP styled hardship payment plans direct to their own account holders which were traditionally the province of CCA’s. Some reports suggest that some of the larger credit card issuing banks have twice as many people they enrolled into internal hardship plans than they have from the credit counselors.
  • The recession and job market has created a situation where a DMP, which is designed to offer the struggling consumer payment reduction through interest rate concessions only, is not enough relief for many people to continue to make timely payments. In fact, due to the rigid payment structure of the DMP, more people fail in a DMP than complete them.

While there are more concerns to list as CCA’s fight to maintain a position in the market, the two highlights above will impact the sector if they break into the debt settlement market, and not in an insignificant way given the iterations of the less than full balance plans that would be administered by credit counseling agencies.

The majority of debt management plans administered to consumers are performed by nonprofit entities. These nonprofit agencies are not, in my opinion, typically operated as charities, but as businesses (with some exceptions). These organizations rely on the monthly contributions they receive from consumers who are enrolled in DMP’s. The average monthly payment consumers make to a CCA for administering the debt repayment plan they are on is roughly $30.00. This average accounts for consumers who pay a higher amount and people whose monthly fee to a CCA is cut to zero due to plan affordability. CCA’s then rely heavily on charitable donations from the very banks they are remitting payments to on behalf of their customers. The donation funding from banks have been severely cut across the board over the last several years, but make no mistake, it is still a significant portion of nonprofit agency funding, one many CCA’s cannot envision getting by without, were the donations cut entirely.

Debt settlement as a means to avoid bankruptcy works when applied to the right person’s financial situation. It works, in large part, due to the flexibilities it affords the struggling consumer.

So, here is what a debt settlement plan, aka less than full balance and credit solutions plans, look like for the bank, the nonprofit debt repayment agency and the consumer:

  • Individual qualifications for one of these CCA sponsored repayment plans will be set up using criteria similar to DMP qualifications. There will be credit score and discretionary income and monthly cash flow modeling. DMP plans already experience high failure and drop out rates due to the narrow and strict qualifications combined with the inflexible set up of the payment amounts that don’t allow customers to prepare for emergencies and the fact that setbacks happen. The less than full balance criteria will inevitably follow a similar pattern of narrow guidelines and will suffer from the inflexibilities that are created in the system. So, rather than settlement plans applied to the proper set of individual circumstances maintaining the major advantage of flexibility over a DMP and chapter 13 payments, its bastardized at the expense of the consumer and the economy for the benefit of the CCA so the agencies can maintain revenue and relevancy.
  • Consumers enrolling in these types of structured credit solution plans are not solving credit concerns in the manner available to them through a properly designed settlement strategy. Creditors are required to charge off non performing accounts by following GAAP. Charge off of accounts that are not being paid the minimum due in a timely way are treated as liabilities and must be offset against loss reserves in a prescriber period as a result. Banks will charge off accounts entered into these agency plans earlier than customary or on schedule (generally 180 days of not meeting contracted payment requirements). Debtor’s credit scores will get hammered immediately when enrolling in these plans. This is a byproduct of settlement plans and should be expected. No big deal right? Wrong. The full balance of the debt owed will still be reported while making these payments. The settlement will not be updated to the consumer credit report until the final payment is made. If the less than full benefit to the consumer plan runs 48 to 60 months, the individual credit report gets hammered up front, the poor DTI ratio is maintained throughout the entirety of the plan, and the credit gets hammered anew at the end of the plan due to the fresh negatives of settlement being reported 4 and 5 years down the line. This will prevent people from accessing credit markets for home purchases, refinancing, and student loans for themselves or cosigning for children, auto loans and other credit products. Where credit reports are used as a pricing mechanism for insurance products etc., this type of plan will assure maximum premiums are paid for the longest period of time.

    Editor Note: Unlike a traditional debt settlement approach where a consumer may settle debts as they progress, the LTFB approach appears to require consumer to make all the years of payments prior to getting full relief of their debts. This statistically increases the odds of default and an outcome that does not resolve the overall situation.

When plans for settlement of unaffordable debts are created specific to the individual’s situation, credit reports and scores can recover sometimes within a year or two, similar to availability of credit to chapter 7 filers. These less than fully beneficial plans being contemplated by CCA’s will cause a doubling and sometimes tripling of the economic effect on the consumers who enroll in them as relates to credit reporting and access to certain types of credit products.

  • There are tax implications when satisfying a debt obligation for less than what was owed. If more than $600.00 is forgiven in an agreement to settle debt, the amount forgiven is deemed income by the IRS. Settlement companies have to disclose this. CCA’s will as well. In fact, CCA’s have for years pointed to the tax implications in a debt settlement plan as the reason to avoid them. They rarely pointed out that the IRS allows consumers to apply a solvency test in order to avoid some or all of the tax implications when settling debts for less. They will have to change their tune when offering the less than full balance option. There are problems with how the tax issue can be managed in one of these “light on benefits” plans. In a flexible and strategically creative settlement plan, debts can be settled in multiple calendar years in order to better plan and budget around the tax that may come due for people who are solvent. With LTFB plans, those taxes will likely all come at the same time at the end of a 4 or 5 year plan. People who are unable to maintain the minimum required payments on credit cards are experiencing a financial hardship at that time which increases the likelihood they will be able to fully or partially benefit from the solvency rule and limit the exposure to tax associated with forgiven debt. Given 4 or 5 years to recover while on an LTFB plan (for those who are able to complete one), will likely cause a sizable increase of individuals who will pay the tax in the following year after the debts were settled. This will add a year to a pinched budget.
  • Many CCA’s primarily focused on income from DMP’s do have poor customer retention. There are certainly talking points to defer the reality of the high attrition numbers for DMP’s, but those same points will not play well with the dropped and canceled files in a Credit Solutions Plan. In a DMP, the creditor offers to re-age accounts and lower interest rates while the DMP notation for each trade line enrolled appears in the credit report of the enrolled consumer. The DMP notation is removed when the plan is no longer being implemented and sponsored by the CCA. In the LTFB, when the consumer drops the plan, the damage created cannot be unwound. The charge off sticks and all benefits are gone. The full balance of the debt remains and there could be penalties and fees assessed anew and perhaps even retro actively. CCA’s will have to disclose all of these issues upfront to the consumer, but people will forget what they were told, as well as what was read and agreed to later on. It’s a certainty. CCA’s will be exposing themselves to private right of action claims they cannot possibly think of right now. Banks may be pulled into litigation as well. The LTFB plans may create a situation where some state laws that prohibit an account be placed in a negative amortization situation will be breached by people who enroll and drop out in the first several months. This is only one area where state laws and the plaintiffs bar will potentially take action. This same circumstance probably exists now with CCA’s who enroll consumers into DMP’s where the customer drops the plan after making only one or two payments, but to a far lesser degree than would be likely in the same circumstance with CCA sponsored debt settlement plans offered to less than suitable candidates.
  • CCA’s will have to disclose to the consumer that the individual can settle these debts on their own for less than what the CCA can do for them. In many instances, settlements will be available for far less. To not disclose this fact will certainly be creating litigation exposures. Banks will be pulled into these actions, I am sure. I have no doubt CCA’s will create an additional conflict of interest when reducing their relationship with their consumer customers down to one of their acting as a fiduciary to the clients they enroll.

    Editor Note: But will they inform consumers? I’m not aware that credit counseling companies now routinely tell consumers that creditor internal hardship programs offered directly may provide superior better benefits. This lack of full disclosure creates a problem for CCAs. Are they really operating in a fiduciary capacity and in the best interest of the consumer if they don’t make this information apparent?

  • Consumers enrolling into the quasi debt collection scheme of a less than full balance/credit solution plan, who are unable to complete it, do not receive the benefit and protection of laws and rules that govern debt settlement service provider’s business practices today. Recent state and federal laws have been enacted to prevent financial harms to consumers. Settlement companies cannot charge for a service until they have performed. With CCA’s plans to offer a settlement solution outlined above, consumers who pay into the plan that are later unable to continue will be damaged. They will have lost time and money applying a strategy that, when it fails, will find them worse off than before they enrolled in it. In several ways, I can see where the damage will be worse than the upfront fee debt settlement business models that were recognized as so very problematic by regulators and consumer advocates around the nation. CCA’s may be unwittingly creating a situation where the campaign against debt settlement comes back to haunt them in a big way.
  • Banks themselves are likely better served by continuing to offer payment options directly to their card members. The larger issuers already offer hardship payment plans that exceed the benefits consumers receive from a CCA sponsored DMP. Banks already offer balance reduction and term payment arrangements to their customers prior to and after charge off. Even if the banks play ball with the CCA’s in a LTFB strategy, they will likely still offer the same plans to the consumers directly. CCA’s will be competing with their financial service industry partners and exposing themselves and the banks to increased risks along the way.

Legitimate concerns are not limited to the bulleted issues above. The realities I have highlighted are each worthy of more detailed commentary. I may cover them in additional articles.

Debt settlement should provide consumers with a flexible and rapid method to resolve unmanageable debts. A good plan puts the consumer in a position to return to responsible spending within 18 to 24 months. The demographic of those who cannot/should not enroll in a DMP, but are suitable candidates to avoid bankruptcy through a debt settlement plan, should be looked at as a large subset of people who can have stimulating impacts on the nation’s economy. Those who can return to responsible spending through chapter 7 discharge and settling unaffordable debts (as opposed to stringing out payments in a DMP, chapter 13 and poorly devised less than beneficial settlement plan), will assist in job creation and economic recovery. This is not an insignificant number of people. The numbers are in the millions.

The current efforts of the nonprofit associations and companies are not the way to go and will lead to little consumer benefit and a fair amount of unintended consequences. I do understand why the less than truly beneficial programs are being designed the way they are. CCA’s are trying to create a delivery system for a settlement option that fits within their collect and pay business model and the laws that govern them. They are trying to figure out what they can do to keep monthly costs of 5 to 10 dollars per customer enrolled in a DMP static with less than full balance plans they can administer. In these efforts, I cannot figure out where consumer benefits come into consideration. I see customer detriments instead. The engineering of the plans appear to first consider what credit card issuers will sign onto, followed by what CCA’s can fit within their current operational limitations, followed by any benefit to the consumer. This is all too evident, and it is bass-ackwards.

CCA’s have a fantastic infrastructure and consumer reach. I have been very supportive of the fact that nonprofit DMP providers should have a debt settlement product/tool available to consumers. CCA’s who are unable or unwilling to build out internal resources should work with other legitimate providers who embrace the educational mission of the nonprofits. There are answers, and options, for credit counseling agencies to pursue in offering a debt settlement tool. The current iterations of less than full balance and credit solution plans miss the mark. I certainly hope this can stimulate a discussion with anyone concerned about debt relief services that benefit consumers, the economy, and the nation as a whole.

Editor note: I’m still stymied that non-profit credit counseling organization are granted their tax status as educational organizations but have they not been actively educating consumers on how to even settle their own debts.

I predict that unless change happens, the liability exposure for not offering education on ALL debt relief options will become a huge liability for CCAs.

Less Than Full Balance Plans and the Problems They Create for Credit Counselors by

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About Michael Bovee

Michael Bovee
  • Larry Armstrong

    Non-profit CCAs HATE debt settlement companies.  Debt Settlement companies HATE non-profit CCA companies and the BOTH HATE bankruptcy attorneys.  Bankruptcy attorneys don’t hate anyone because BK is the option of last resort.  They know that the majority of debtors will eventually come to them anyway after DMPs and debt settlement plans fail and leave them no choice but to declare BK. 

    The fact is the there are no bad debt elimination options.  DMPs have helped millions deal with and eliminate debt as have debt settlement plans and bankruptcy.  On the other hand, approximately 4 out of 5 people who enter a DMP fail to complete the program and must turn to more aggressive tactics.  The attraction of the ability to pay less than you owe and avoid bankruptcy is HUGE and allowed settlement companies to charge large fees and encouraged sales people to make claims and promises for debt settlement that could not be fulfilled. And, according to most recent statistics only about 30% of BK 13 filers complete the plan and get out of debt. 

    The fact is there are no bad debt elimination options, only bad applications of good options recommended by people who are only paid IF the client chooses the program they have available to sell.  If you are a hammer, the whole world is a nail. 

    I worked for a non-profit CCA for two years.  Non-profit is strictly a tax status, definitely NOT a method of charitable operation.  Despite claims to the contrary their only and only goal was to maximize income and cash flow, which meant selling as many DMPs as possible.  After going through a persons situation and numbers, I told many people they were judgement proof.  I told many others that although they would not be successful with a DMP, that debt settlement may work for them.  Others, slam dunk, no doubt about it, BK would be their best and often, only option to successfully eliminate their debt.  I really enjoyed working there because I could give people an objective analysis and solution to their problems.  That is until I was let go because I did not sell enough DMPs, did not generate enough revenue for the company. 

    The above comments are also applicable to debt settlement and bankruptcy providers.  When an “advisors” financial security and income is dependent on what the client does, is anyone really able to provide objective advice and advise people to pursue an option that you are not compensated for?   

    Virtually all debt practitioners offer free consultation and but one product to implement, and the client failure rate is very high. What is needed are financial planners who understand cash flow analysis and all debt elimination options and can provide comprehensive analysis and objective recommendations.  This however requires a fee only business model which very few consumers are willing to pay for. 

    Free is what consumers want.  As a result of a free analysis, the wrong debt elimination option is recommended and chosen.  Every dime, every minute spent on a failed debt elimination option is wasted, thrown away, gone forever. Thus, free is often the most expensive advice anyone will ever get.  Caveat Emptor.

    • http://GetOutOfDebt.org Steve Rhode

      So true. So true.

    • Doubledebt0

      AMEN, AMEN!!

    • http://www.zipdebt.com Charles Phelan

      Larry, I agree with much of what you are saying here, but don’t you feel it’s a bit over-the-top to say that all debt settlement providers *hate* CCAs and BK attorneys? For my part, I’ve been in the debt settlement camp for 14+ years, and I certainly don’t hate CCAs or BK attorneys. I’m sure many other regular posters here would agree. In fact, I see BK attorneys as a crucial resource even in a debt settlement context. Regarding CCAs, I think DMPs have been grossly over-promoted as a debt relief option, but I can certainly understand why many people would still prefer this approach to more aggressive strategies like debt settlement or BK. That said, I do take your point that “free” advice is potentially more costly than paid-for advice from a competent financial planner.

      • Larry Armstrong

        Hey Charles, you are absolutely correct.  Definitely ALL is over the top, and HATE probably is also. I, like you as well as the majority, hate no one – let alone all of any debt practitioner genre. That being said,the real issue is that everyone, be it DMP, settlement, BK providers and consumers; everyone does what they perceive to be in their financial best interest. 

        Consumers need comprehensive analysis and objective advise, but do not want to pay for it.  By pursuing what they believe is in their best interest, consumers talk only to consultants/advisors/salespersons that provide free advise that  is in their best interest. 

        Instead of the objective advise they need, they get a sales pitch promoting a specific product, frequently denigrating any and all other methods and products. As a result, all too often consumers are “sold” the wrong debt elimination tool.  The inevitable result of using the wrong tool is spending spending far time and money on debt elimination than is necessary and eventual failure. When people fail they say the tool was bad, not that they chose the wrong tool. This is true be it DMP, settlement, consolidation or BK providers. 

        One thing I want to be absolutely clear about is that this does not mean that consumers are stupid, or that debt product providers are bad people.  It only   means that they are people and ALL people ALWAYS do what they believe is in their best interest. Thus consumers seek free, providers seek to sell and failure is far too often the result. 

        Thank you for pointing out my over statement, I stand corrected. 

  • http://www.zipdebt.com Charles Phelan

    Michael, great article as usual, and followed by the sound of crickets as usual. :-) Apparently, the credit counseling industry doesn’t want to hear that the less-than-full-balance plans are a non-starter. I am reminded of discussion a couple of years ago about the “60/60″ plan that was being proposed by some CCAs, where 60% of the debt balance would be paid back by the debtor over a 5-year period (60 months). Virtually all of the problems you point out above apply to that approach. Further, I think we should just call the LTFB plans exactly what they are — Chapter 13 bankruptcy without the paperwork. Consumers can usually do *much* better than a 60/60 result negotiating on their own (with appropriate guidance). Unless and until the CCAs wake up to the fact that they need to collectively start educating consumers about the debt settlement option, the entire industry is doomed to irrelevance as the existing DMP solution becomes replaced by internal bank programs (and consumers taking matters in their own hands via all the information readily available online nowadays).

    • http://GetOutOfDebt.org Steve Rhode

      I agree. The silence is deafening.

    • Michael

      Hi Charles,

      Yes, the different iterations are similar to the chapter 13 light concepts from a few years ago.

      If CCA’s are willing to let go of some old misconceptions and take advantage of technology and the efficiencies that come with it, they could be providing a legitimate settlement tool that meets either for or nonprofit status concerns; address creditor concerns; see to consumer needs and fairness first – and be able to embrace the tools tomorrow… literally.

      We now return you to the regularly scheduled cricket symphony in E minor.

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