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Should a co-signer settle with collection agency?

A woman who co-signed a student loan for a now-former friend should keep some things in mind when trying to remove the stain from her credit reports.

January 20, 2013|Liz Weston | Money Talk

Dear Liz: My daughter co-signed a student loan for a friend who failed to pay the debt. Now my daughter cannot refinance her home because this loan appears on her otherwise very good credit reports. She has been getting calls from a collection agency.

I called the agency to discuss what it would cost to get her released from all liability regarding this loan, and they gave me an offer of $13,000 to satisfy the debt, which is now $35,000. I countered with $9,000, since the original loan was just $15,000, but they refused. My daughter is unhappy about paying anything, since her ex-friend is a gainfully employed attorney. Is it good business to pay what the collection agency is asking, or should I continue to negotiate?

Answer: That sounds like a pretty good offer, said financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb websites.

"Lenders almost never settle for less than the outstanding principal balance of a defaulted student loan, so that may be the best she can get," Kantrowitz said. "It may be the case that they are offering her a low settlement amount to release her from her obligation and then will go after her former friend for the remaining debt. When there are two borrowers on the hook, one borrower reaching a settlement does not cancel the debt. It merely releases that borrower from her obligation."

Your daughter should have the settlement offer reviewed by an attorney, Kantrowitz said. The attorney should verify that the collection agency has the authority to settle the debt, and any agreement should list all of the loans involved.

"I've seen cases where a borrower thought she was getting a settlement of all the loans," Kantrowitz said, "but the settlement was just for some of the loans."

Ideally, the settlement agreement would require the lender to stop reporting the default and delinquencies to the credit bureaus, which would remove the stain from her credit reports. Not all lenders will agree to such a condition, Kantrowitz said, but removal would be better for her credit than simply having the debt reported as "satisfied."

Also, the agreement should require that the lender provide a "paid in full" statement to your daughter as proof her debt has been settled, Kantrowitz said.

"She should keep this statement forever," Kantrowitz said, "as defaulted loans have a tendency to resurrect themselves from time to time, [such as when] a bank reloads their database from old backup tapes [or] someone reviewing old records discovers the original promissory note."

An attorney also could advise your daughter about taking further steps, such as suing the former friend for repayment or reporting the issue to the state bar, which has standards of professional conduct that may be violated by an unpaid debt.

Late payment has an effect

Dear Liz: We are trying to negotiate our second mortgage and have not paid it since June. Will this affect my wanting to purchase an auto?

Answer: It may not affect your desire to purchase a car, but it's likely to affect the actual transaction if you're not able to pay cash.

Failing to pay a credit obligation can devastate your credit scores, the three-digit numbers lenders use to gauge your creditworthiness. The worse your scores, the less likely you are to find a lender willing to do business with you. Even if you can secure a loan, it's likely to come with a scandalously high interest rate.

Pay into IRA automatically

Dear Liz: I started a new job, but unfortunately it does not offer a 401(k). I have an IRA but don't contribute to it. What is the best way to contribute so I can discipline myself in saving for retirement? I am 47.

Answer: The best way to save for retirement is to leave the issue of discipline out of it. If you have to discipline yourself to make the right choice every paycheck, you'll wind up spending the money rather than saving it.

Instead, put your savings on automatic. You can contribute $5,000 a year to your IRA. Divide $5,000 by the number of paychecks you get in a year and set up an automatic transfer of that amount. If you're paid every other week, for example, you would divide $5,000 by 26 paychecks to get $192.31, which is the amount you should have transferred into your IRA every two weeks.

If you can save more, then open a regular brokerage account and set up automatic transfers into that. You won't get a tax break for your contributions, but if you hold your investments for at least one year you'll qualify for long-term capital gains rates that are lower than regular income tax rates.

Once you've set up these transfers you need to keep your hands off the money. Don't treat your retirement funds as emergency cash or tap into them for any other reason. You're getting a late start and you'll need every dollar you can save if you want a comfortable retirement.

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