Q&A: Clash over the state of their mother’s estate

Dear Liz: My husband’s mother passed away in January. His younger sister was executor of the estate. His mother had investments of close to $1 million prior to 2008. She supposedly lost half her investments with the downturn. When she passed away, my husband’s sister said that there was nothing left in the estate. What documents can he ask to see in order to make sure the estate is totally depleted? There wasn’t even a will shown to him.

Answer: If your mother-in-law had a will, or if she died “intestate” — without any estate planning documents — the sister would be required to open a probate case to settle the estate. Probate proceedings are public so your husband would be able to see an accounting of what’s left.

If your mother-in-law had a living trust, the sister wouldn’t have to open a probate case but she may be required to provide trust documents and an accounting of the estate to beneficiaries and heirs. The exact rules depend on the state where your mother-in-law died.

If the sister balks at providing this information, your husband may need to take her to court. He’d be smart to consult an attorney familiar with the relevant state’s laws.

Q&A: Co-signing a grandchild’s student loan

Dear Liz: My granddaughter, who will graduate college in a year, has asked me to co-sign her third private loan, which will bring her total debt to $30,000. She needs three people to co-sign. Her parents and the other grandparents have agreed and she wants me to be the third party. I love my granddaughter and trust her intentions, but I really don’t like co-signing a loan for anyone. If I refuse, I’ll really be in the doghouse. Is there any way I could guarantee that I would only be responsible for this loan if the others don’t pay?

Answer: Co-signers are equally responsible for paying a debt. There isn’t a hierarchy. If your granddaughter fails to pay a loan, it will affect the credit reports and credit scores of anyone who co-signed that loan.

It would be unusual for any student loan to require three co-signers. What she may have meant is that her parents co-signed her first loan, her other grandparents co-signed the second and now she wants you to co-sign the third.

In any case, there’s no way to get the guarantee you want. If you’re not comfortable co-signing, don’t. Your family members should be the ones in the doghouse if they pressure you in any way to go along with this scheme.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

pokemon-goToday’s top story: Protecting your kids and your data while playing Pokemon GO. Also in the news: Bankruptcy means test, the hidden student loan cost no one talks about, and what to do when you’ve been dumped by your bank.

Pokémon Go: How to Keep Your Kids and Your Data Safe
Gotta catch ’em all!

The Bankruptcy Means Test: What It Is, Why It Matters
Determining your bankruptcy eligibility.

The Hidden Student Loan Cost No One Talks About
Introducing interest capitalization.

Help! My Bank Dumped Me
What to do when your bank breaks up with you.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

hidden-fees1Today’s top story: Scams to watch out for. Also in the news: Understanding Social Security spousal benefits after divorce, fixing a critical 401(k) flaw, and new airline luggage fees.

Scams Called ‘Worst’ of Consumers’ Top 10 Complaints
Don’t fall for them.

Divorce Doesn’t Preclude Social Security Spousal Benefits
Understanding the complicated rules.

How fix a critical flaw in 401(k) plans
Adjusting your retirement savings.

Some Airlines Have Rolled Out a New Luggage Fee
Pack appropriately.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Social-Security-benefitsToday’s top story: Timing is everything when it comes to Social Security benefits. Also in the news: How Wi-Fi calling can save you money, a quiz to test your money smarts, and four concepts that’ll help you master your money.

For Social Security Benefits, Timing Is Key
Picking the right time.

What Wi-Fi Calling Is and How It Can Save You Money
Saving your minutes.

Do you have money smarts?
Take the quiz.

Focus on These Four Concepts to Finally Master Your Money
What to concentrate on.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

siblingsToday’s top story: How couples can talk about money without a blowup. Also in the news: Amazon Prime Day, tax mistakes to avoid, and how to make good financial decisions.

How Couples Can Talk Money Without a Blowup
Remembering what’s important.

Prime Day Kicks Off With Low Prices on Amazon Kindle, Echo and More
Bargain hunting.

11 Big Tax Mistakes to Avoid
Proceed with caution.

How to Make Good Financial Decisions
Thinking before you spend.

The Smartest Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make

common-retirement-mistakesThere’s really only one thing young people need know about money: Save for retirement, starting now.

Yes, at some point you’ll want to pay off your debt, have an emergency fund and buy a home. Right now, though, you’re burning through your most limited resource, which is time. You can’t make more of it, you can’t get it back when it’s gone, and you have a limited window to harness its power.

In my latest for NerdWallet, why it’s imperative for young people to start saving for retirement immediately.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

bigstock-U-s-Income-Tax-Return-Form-28476797-e1390508229663Today’s top story: The best time to file your tax returns. Also in the news: Picking the right financial advisor, overcoming retirement obstacles, and what the Presidential candidates have planned for your wallet.

The Best Time to File Your Tax Return
What’s the optimum time for you?

Key Steps to Researching a Financial Advisor
Finding the right advisor.

5 ways to overcome obstacles between you and retirement
Don’t let them get in your way.

Keep an eye on candidates’ plans for your wallet: Advisors
They’re both after your money.

Q&A: How to make sure your money-distribution wishes are followed after you die

Dear Liz: My first husband died when my oldest child was 1. I remarried and had another child (they’re 5 and 3 now). My husband and I prepared a trust in which I have him and my sister as beneficiaries of my assets. But my husband regrets that he is not the only beneficiary.

My argument is that if I pass away and he remarries, I want my oldest son (not his biological son, nor has my husband adopted him yet) to get what I saved for him, and that my sister will make sure this happens. What would you recommend? Should I have him as the only beneficiary?

Answer: No. But your sister probably shouldn’t be a beneficiary either, given your aims.

Any parent who wants to get money to a child should do so with a properly drafted trust, rather than trusting someone else — even another parent — to “do the right thing” by the child. All too often, they don’t. A new spouse, a change in financial circumstances, ill will or basic selfishness can tempt people to justify raiding funds intended for others.

A better way to benefit your children is to set up trusts to receive the money. You can name your husband as the trustee for the younger child and name your sister as the trustee for the elder. Trustees have the legal responsibility to act as fiduciaries, which means they have to put the beneficiaries’ interests first.

You can either create these trusts with your will or they can be part of your living trust if you live in a state with high probate costs, such as California. The advantage of probate is that the court can provide some oversight of the trustee, but that typically involves some additional costs. Your estate-planning attorney can offer guidance about which approach may be best for you.

Q&A: Are credit checks a scam?

Dear Liz: In July last year, I accessed the website for my free credit report before applying for a car loan. I have also been in recovery from cancer treatment and haven’t been great about checking my Visa statement until now. For the past year, my credit card has been charged $19.95 each month for some kind of “credit check” service. I never authorized this, nor did I request this service. I contacted the site, and they will refund me only one month of billing. Is this some kind of scam? How do they get away with this, and what can I do?

Answer: It may not technically be a scam, but the site’s business model profits from people’s confusion about how to get free credit reports.

The site you used is not the federally mandated site for free credit reports. It’s likely one that you found by typing “free credit reports” into a search engine and then clicking on one of the first results, which was probably an ad. To find the real site, you need to type www.annualcreditreport.com into your browser. You won’t need to give your credit card number to get your reports.

You may be able to get another month’s fee refunded by contacting your credit-card issuer and disputing the charge. By federal law, you’re supposed to make such disputes within 60 days after the statement containing the disputed charge was sent to you. Write to the issuer at its address for billing inquiries (not the address where you send your payments) and send it certified mail, return receipt requested.