Aging Options

Dealing with Credit Card Debt

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The number of seniors facing credit card debt has been growing. The average credit-card debt for consumers over 65 more than doubled from 1992 to 2004, to $4,907. Credit card debt can be especially problematic for seniors, who typically have a fixed income. If you or someone you love is having trouble making credit card payments, there are several options:

  • Try negotiating. A credit counseling agency or attorney may be able to negotiate with the credit card company for lower fees or interest rates. If the debtor is relying solely on Social Security for income, it may even be possible to have the debt forgiven. Note, however, that if the debt is forgiven it can count as income, which may create tax consequences or affect Social Security payments.
  • Reverse mortgage. If the debtor owns a house and is over 62 years old, a reverse mortgage may provide enough money to pay off debt. With a reverse mortgage, instead of paying the bank money to build up equity, homeowners use the equity in their homes to take out loans. The loan does not have to be paid back until the house is sold or the homeowner dies. While reverse mortgages may look like no-lose propositions on the surface, they also have some significant downsides.
  • Tap into life insurance. Permanent life insurance policies build a cash value, which can be used as collateral for a loan or withdrawn from the account. This money can be used for any purpose, including paying down credit card debt. Keep in mind, however, that loans or withdrawals will reduce the death benefit.
  • Bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy is not an easy solution. In 2005, a tough bankruptcy law went in to effect, making it much more difficult to get bankruptcy protection. For example, bankruptcy is available only to individuals whose income is below a certain level, and the homestead exemption, which allows you to protect all or some of the equity in your home, is stricter. Before filing for bankruptcy be sure to discuss your options with an attorney.
  • Do nothing. It may sound crazy, but one option is to do nothing and let the credit card companies sue the debtor. If the debtor owns a house, the court may put a lien on it. If not, the debt may be written off or reduced. An attorney can tell you if this is the right step for you take.

Regardless of what steps the debtor takes, debtors have the right not to be harassed by credit card companies. The Fair Debt Collection Act prohibits certain conduct by credit agencies attempting to collect debts. For example, creditors may contact debtors only between the hours of 8am and 9pm, may not use abusive or profane language, and must stop contacting debtors if the debtors request it in writing.

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