Q&A: What happens to debts after death?

Dear Liz: When a person passes away, what happens to their debt obligations? A brother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and my husband is listed as the beneficiary. His residence is paid off but has monthly homeowners association fees and property taxes that we would expect to pay. However, he has had low income for years, so he also has substantial credit-card debt, a line of credit with a large outstanding balance and some other debts. He refuses to share pertinent details (such as account numbers) so that we can address these issues when he dies. It’s clear that he will not be able to address them. Any advice?

Answer: Your brother-in-law’s creditors typically will file claims against his estate after he dies. Those bills are paid before what’s left, if anything, can be distributed to his heirs. If his home equity and other assets aren’t sufficient to pay his debts, however, those heirs won’t be on the hook. The creditors will take what they can get and write off the unpaid balance.

You say your husband is “listed” as the beneficiary, but you don’t say where. If his brother doesn’t have a will or living trust, he should be encouraged to visit an estate-planning attorney as soon as possible. He should also have powers of attorney drafted that name the people he wants to make healthcare and financial decisions for him should he become incapacitated.

In the meantime, stop bugging the poor man for his account numbers. There’s no need for you to have that information while he’s still alive and able to handle his own affairs.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: NerdWallet Survey: Nearly half of Americans emotionally overspend. Also in the news: RushCard holders are in for a $10 million payout, the best way to make extra money, and why some are worried student loan robocalls could increase under Trump.

NerdWallet Survey: Nearly Half of Americans Emotionally Overspend
Are you one of them?

RushCard Holder? You Might Get Slice of $10 Million Payout
Settlement for 2015 system breakdown.

Ask Brianna: What’s the Best Way to Make Extra Money?
Searching for side gigs.

Why some are worried student loan borrowers may get a flood of robocalls under Trump
Loan companies could lose their limits.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 10 tax forms you need to know before you file. Also in the news: How Blacks took banking into their own hands, understanding collision and comprehensive insurance, and why you shouldn’t take financial advice from commercials.

10 Tax Forms You Need to Know Before You File
Understanding the 1099s and the W2s.

How Blacks Took Banking Into Their Own Hands
More than 18% of African Americans don’t have traditional bank accounts.

Understanding Collision and Comprehensive Insurance
The important differences.

Don’t Take Financial Advice from Commercials
Don’t forget – they’re trying to sell you something.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: NerdWallet’s best credit card tips for February. Also in the news: How to cope with delayed tax refunds, brick and mortar stalwarts close as e-commerce thrives, and free online classes to improve your financial literacy.

NerdWallet’s Best Credit Card Tips for February 2017
What cards will serve you best?

IRS Delays Some Tax Refunds: How to Cope
Security measures to slow things down.

As E-Commerce Thrives, Macy’s, Sears Stores Close
Brick-and-mortar stores turned to dust.

5 free online classes to improve your financial literacy
No excuses!

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 2017 Tax Checklist. Also in the news: How home insurance defends your Super Bowl party mishaps, how using TurboTax could help with your student loans, and new apps to bolster your personal finances.

Super Bowl Party Fouls: How Home Insurance Defends Your Turf
Making sure your party mishaps are covered.

How Using TurboTax Could Help With Your Student Loans
Looking into refinancing options.

2017 Tax Checklist: What to Gather Before Filing
Get your paperwork in order.

Online DIY options to bolster your personal finances
Apps to help you get organized.

How to help your parents protect their money

Our financial decision-making abilities peak in our 50s and can decline pretty rapidly after age 70, researchers tell us. That’s how otherwise smart older people fall for sweepstakes frauds, Nigerian investment schemes and the grandparent scam, where con artists pretend to be grandchildren in a financial jam.

But few people want to hear that they’re not as sharp as they used to be. Many won’t recognize the rising risk of losing hard-earned life savings as they age, says financial literacy expert Lewis Mandell, author of “What to Do When I Get Stupid: A Radically Safe Approach to a Difficult Financial Era.”

“As our ability to make sound financial decisions decreases with age, our self-confidence in this area actually increases,” Mandell says.

In my latest for the Associated Press, what adult children can do to protect the finances of their parents.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Determining the best way to do your taxes. Also in the news: Refinancing an FHA loan, what’s next for the stock market, and why now is the time to hunt for higher rates on your bank accounts.

Determining the Best Way to Do Your Taxes
Finding the way that works best for you.

FHA Streamline Refinance: 5 Strict Conditions
Meeting the tough requirements.

Trump’s in, Dow Hits 20,000: What’s Next for the Market?
Looking at the market under a new administration.

Now’s the time: Hunt for higher rates on your bank accounts
It’s a year of rising interest rates.

Q&A: How to tell if you’ve got the right financial advisor

Dear Liz: I have met with a financial advisor, but he wants every investment to go through him. Although he is an advisor, he works for a company and wants me to buy their products. I’m a little resistant about this. What’s your advice?

Answer: Anyone can call himself or herself a financial advisor or a financial planner. There are no education, experience or ethics requirements for using those titles. A more accurate job description for this guy might be “product salesman.” He may not charge you upfront, but he’ll make commissions from those products and will recommend them even if there are better, cheaper options available.

If you want someone who puts your interests first, look for a fee-only advisor who’s willing to act as a fiduciary. “Fiduciary” means the advisor promises to act in your best interests. And don’t confuse “fee only” with “fee based.” Fee-only advisors are compensated only by their clients. Fee-based advisors may charge their clients while accepting commissions for the products they recommend. You can get referrals to fee-only advisors from the Garrett Planning Network at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com and the National Assn. for Personal Financial Advisors at www.napfa.org.

If you want someone to give you comprehensive financial planning advice, make sure that he or she has the appropriate credential such as Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or Personal Financial Specialist (PFS) and that you verify the credential with the group that issued it (the CFP Board of Standards for the CFP, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants for the PFS).

If all you want is help with investment management, though, you may not even need an advisor right now. “Robo advisors” offer automated portfolio management using computer algorithms. Robo-advising began with start-ups like Betterment and Wealthfront and it’s now offered by more established companies, including Charles Schwab and Vanguard.

Q&A: Cleaning up your credit score

Dear Liz: I have several small dings on my credit. I’m now in the position to pay them off, but how do I know my credit will be improved? Should I call the companies and ask if they will remove it if I pay in full and get it in writing?

Answer: Paying off collections won’t help your credit scores, and creditors rarely agree to delete collection accounts in exchange for payment. You can always ask, but don’t count on this as a way to improve your credit. The best way to recover from “small dings” is to use credit responsibly in the future. That means paying bills on time and using less than 30% of your available credit on your cards. You don’t need to carry balances to improve your credit.

Q&A: Avoiding estate taxes

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about what a wealthy couple could do to reduce future estate taxes, and you mentioned the annual exclusion. They also could pay education and medical expenses for anyone, and there’s no annual limit.

Answer: Absolutely — and the couple’s estate planning attorney almost certainly would have informed them of this option.

The original letter came from one of the couple’s children, asking what their parents could do to reduce future estate taxes, in addition to the irrevocable trust that already had been set up. The reader lamented that the estate was bigger than the current exemption limits (now $10.98 million for a married couple) and so could incur estate taxes.

My answer was that the couple’s attorney would have told them of other options. One of those options is to use the annual exclusion of $14,000 per recipient to gift tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their estate. If the couple chooses not to use available options, and instead lets the estate incur the taxes, there’s not much the heirs can do about it.