When you have a longstanding, overdue debt with a creditor, whether it’s an unpaid credit card balance, medical bills, or anything else, at a certain point the account will likely be handed over to a collection agency. You usually receive a notice in the mail that the debt is changing hands, but if you’re unsure try calling the original creditor to find out who holds the account.

settling debt

A lot of things can happen when trying to settle your debt, so it’s important to understand your rights as well as some of the worst-case scenarios — and how to avoid them.

Lawsuits and Bankruptcies

When you’re dealing with delinquent debt, unfortunately, either the creditor or collection agency may file a lawsuit if you refuse to pay the money you owe. However, a lawsuit can be a lengthy and expensive process, so many collectors don’t think it’s worth the effort, especially if you appear savvy and demonstrate that you understand your legal rights.

Filing bankruptcy is a huge decision that can affect your life for years to come. While there are certainly some situations where it’s a good choice, make sure you put in a lot of thought and research about the benefits and consequences before making your decision.

You should also consult with a financial expert or credit counselor before you file for bankruptcy. Also, consider the type of debt you have. Student loans, for example, typically don’t go away even when you file for bankruptcy.

State exemption laws also vary depending on where you live. Those are important because they determine whether or not your personal property, such as your house or car, can be repossessed to compensate for the debt you owe.

Bankruptcies stay on your credit report between 7 and 10 years, so it’s definitely something that takes a long time to recover from. Before you even get to the possibility of a lawsuit or bankruptcy, check out the way to settle your debts so you don’t have to go down a litigious path.

Settling Your Debts

Now we know the two worst-case scenarios to avoid: lawsuits and bankruptcies. In order to do this, you can employ several strategies to settle your debts with collection agencies. Read each one carefully to find out which ones might work best for your personal situation. They might take a little time and effort, but if you’re already this far down the path of debt, it’s time to take action so you can avoid more serious consequences like the ones we talked about above.

Best Debt for Settling

There are two types of debt you can have: secured and unsecured. Secured debt means that there is personal property associated with the money you owe, such as a house or a car. Typically, this is not a good type of debt to try and settle because the creditor can simply foreclose on your house or repossess the vehicle if you don’t pay.

Unsecured debt, like credit cards, personal loans, and medical bills, offers a little more wiggle room in the negotiation process. If you don’t pay or file for bankruptcy, the collection agency stands no chance of receiving any money from the debt. So it’s really in their best interest to work with you on a solution.

Debt Validation

Your very first step in settling your balance with a collection agency should be to send a debt validation request. Send it as soon as you receive notice that your debt has gone to a collection agency, although you technically have 30 days to do so. Upon receiving the request, the debt collector is legally required to send you proof that they have the right to collect the debt from you.

Acceptable documents include a copy of the contract between the collection agency and the original creditor; a copy of the creditor’s original statement; or a copy of your original credit card application or loan agreement. If they can’t provide any of this information, you’re not legally required to pay them anything.

Statute of Limitations

Another basic strategy for settling your debt is checking the statute of limitations in your state. After a certain point, your debt may be too old to even collect on anymore. Because the timeline varies depending on where you live, check specifically for where you live. You’re in luck if the statute of limitations has passed, because then you can inform the collection agency that they have no right to take you to court to pay the money — they debt has become uncollectable.

Making Deals with Collectors

Even if your debt is within the statute of limitations and the collector has verified that it does indeed own your debt, you still have several ways to negotiate. Start off by offering a lump sum payment that you’re able to pay for the debt. Always make your requests in writing so that you can keep records of all your communication with the collection agency. Don’t be put off if they refuse your request at first. Negotiating debt is a several-step process so make sure they give in before you do.

Collection agencies stand to make huge margins on the amount you owe, so don’t be afraid to offer less than 25% of what you owe. Why? Because the collection agency probably only paid 6 or 7% of your unpaid balance, so even if you offer to pay 25%, they’ll be making at least a 19% profit.

Think of it this way. Say your outstanding debt is $5,000. The collection agency paid about $300 for the privilege of collecting on it. If you offer to pay 25%, or $1,250, they still make out with $950 in profit. And the older your debt is, the less you can offer, especially if you’re inching closely towards the statute of limitations. That’s why it never hurts to start low in the negotiation process — it’s a completely different ballgame than working with the original creditor.

Best Practices to Always Follow When Settling Debts

We already mentioned sending all communication in writing, and we can’t stress this enough. Keep detailed records of everything you send and that the collection agency sends back. Also send everything via certified mail so that you can confirm the letter was received. Leave no room for the collection agency to claim you didn’t send something to them.

That being said, only talk to a debt collector on the phone if you’re confident in your abilities to stay calm. Debt collectors are known for being harsh and evoking strong emotional responses. If you do want to give it a try and talk to someone on the phone, just remember that you can hang up at any time.

When you do talk to someone, make sure you get their full name and any other identifying information. Take comprehensive notes so that you have records of everything that was said or agreed on and you can then send a copy of your notes to the agency through the mail.

When negotiating a payment amount, only offer a lump sum rather than regular payments. It’s too easy for a collection agency to tack on fees and interest that will make your amount owed higher than what you agreed upon. If you don’t have enough cash on hand to make a lump sum, file a cease and desist order and start saving up for one. Since your negotiating position only strengthens with time, you may be better off waiting longer anyway.

If the debt collection agency does attempt to charge you some sort of fees or interest, check your state usury laws. These laws put limits on how much interest a creditor may charge. Make sure your collection agency is in line with state law, otherwise, it’s time to let them know that you’re aware of your rights and that the agency is violating them.

During the negotiation process, never look desperate for a settlement and be prepared for a lengthy process. If the collection agency realizes you need to settle, they’ll have the upper hand in the negotiation process and very likely refuse to lower your balance amount at all. The best case scenario is when the collection agency initiates the settlement process, but even if you’re the one making the first offer, stay calm and collected throughout the process.

Don’t forget that settling your debt isn’t just about reaching an agreement on the payment. You can also negotiate how the debt is reported to the credit bureaus. This is important because that dictates what shows up on your credit report and affects your credit score. Make sure they remove the item completely; otherwise your credit score will take a nosedive, even if it’s listed as “paid as agreed.”

Once you do reach an agreement, get all of the details in writing to ensure they don’t try to change anything at the last minute. Keep your own detailed list of what you negotiated and make sure the contract reflects everything accurately. If not, it’s time to follow up once more.

As long as you keep diligent records and handle the settlement process patiently, you have good odds of only paying a fraction of your original balance.