Credit & Debt Category
Dear Liz: I am working on paying my bad debt from the past to rebuild my scores. I have one credit card that I pay in full every month, but no installment loan. I recently was given the opportunity to take a car loan with monthly payments I could easily afford. Here is my confusion: Taking on more debt while trying to eliminate past debt is usually not advisable. But I also know creditors like to see both revolving and installment credit. Am I OK taking the car loan to give the “well-rounded use” credit, or should I just put that extra money to pay off my past debt?
Answer: Paying off old bad debts typically doesn’t help your credit scores. If these accounts are now in collections, the damage has been done and won’t be erased by your payments.
And if the accounts are in collections, the money you’re paying probably isn’t going to the creditors you originally owed. Those creditors probably sold your debts to collection agencies for pennies on the dollar. If that’s the case, those collectors may be willing to settle for 50% or less of what you owed the original creditor. If you have the cash to make lump sum offers and you decide to take this route, get written assurance from the collector — in advance and in writing — that any remaining debt won’t be resold to another collector. Also, reserve some cash for the tax bill, because forgiven debt is usually considered taxable income.
You also can request a “pay for deletion,” which means the collection agency stops reporting the collection account to the credit bureaus in exchange for your lump sum payment. Getting rid of the collection could help your scores, but many collectors resist this step.
Now, back to your question. Adding an installment loan such as an auto loan, mortgage or student loan to your credit mix can indeed help rehabilitate troubled scores. The scoring formulas like to see people responsibly handling a mix of credit accounts.
If you decide to take out a car loan, shop around for a lender before you commit. Those affordable payments you were shown could disguise a bad loan — one with a sky-high interest rate, a long repayment period or both. It’s wise to make at least a 20% down payment on any car purchase and to limit the loan term to four years or less.
Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether one spouse can be held responsible for the other’s credit card debt. My husband and I are separated and he recently was diagnosed with cancer. He is unemployed with no health insurance and high hospital bills and back child support payments. In the event of his death, will I be liable for his debts?
Answer: You need to talk to an attorney to determine your liability for his medical bills, since it depends on state law. Some states don’t hold spouses liable for these bills if they’re legally separated, while others do. In any case, his estate will still owe the unpaid child support, and child support typically has a higher priority for payment than most other creditor’s claims when an estate is settled. In general, creditors have to be paid before the rest of the assets can be distributed to heirs.
Dear Liz: You’ve answered a number of questions regarding credit card debt when a person dies. But I haven’t quite seen the answer I need. If a spouse dies, and the remaining spouse is not on the credit card account, is it still the responsibility of the survivor to pay the card? Does the answer vary by state? Or is it a federal law?
Answer: As you read in previous columns, the dead person’s assets are typically used to pay his or her debts. If there aren’t enough available assets to pay the creditors, those creditors may be able to go after the spouse in certain states and certain circumstances.
In community property states such as California, debts incurred during a marriage are typically considered to be owed by both parties. Other community property states include Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In the rest of the states, a spouse’s debts are his or her own, unless the debt was incurred for family necessities or the spouse co-signed or otherwise accepted liability.
Collection agencies have been known to contact spouses, children and other family members and tell them they have a legal or moral obligation to pay the dead person’s debts, regardless of state law. If you are married to someone with significant debt, contact an attorney to help you understand and perhaps mitigate your risk.
Dear Liz: My mother, who is widowed, has credit card debt. When she dies, are my sister and I responsible for that debt? There is no estate, but she does have a small amount of life insurance that mainly would go toward her funeral expenses and fixing things in her home to get it ready for sale.
Answer: If your mother owns property, then she has an estate. If she has any equity in the property when she dies, some of that equity might have to be used to pay her debts.
You and your sister, however, are not responsible for your mother’s debts. The life insurance also does not have to be used to pay debts if your mother names a beneficiary (or beneficiaries) for the policy and at least one of the people named outlives her. In that case, the insurance proceeds would go directly to the beneficiaries, bypassing the probate process.
If she doesn’t name a beneficiary, the insurance proceeds may be included in her estate and used to pay her final bills, including credit card debt.
If your mother can’t pay what she owes, she should consider talking with a bankruptcy attorney about her options.
Dear Liz: My husband returned a car to the dealer when he lost his job. Now the company says he owes it more than $7,000 (the difference between what he owed to the dealer and the price for which the car was sold). He refuses to pay any amount, but recently he received a letter from a law office demanding payment or they will take him to court. Is he obliged to pay this money? What options does he have to get rid of this debt?
Answer: A debt doesn’t disappear simply because someone decides not to pay it.
Your husband signed loan paperwork to buy the car, and this paperwork obligated him to repay a certain amount. Voluntarily surrendering the car didn’t change his obligation. Also, the surrender probably is being reported to the credit bureaus as a repossession, which is a big negative mark on his credit reports. Some people mistakenly believe that a voluntary surrender avoids credit damage. Typically, it does not.
Your husband could make matters worse if he continues his stubbornness. The law firm can take the collection to court, where it’s likely to win. That will add a judgment to your husband’s credit files and cause further damage to his scores. His wages could be garnished to pay the debt.
Your husband may be able to settle this debt for less than he owes, especially if he can offer a substantial lump sum, but negotiations with a collector can be tricky. He may want to consult an attorney for help or at least arm himself with more knowledge about what to do from sites such as DebtCollectionAnswers.com.
If this is just one of a number of unpaid bills, though, you both may benefit from talking to a bankruptcy attorney about your options.
In the future, keep this experience in mind when you go to buy another car. Making at least a 20% down payment and limiting the loan term to four years or less will help ensure that you’re never “upside down” like this again.
Dear Liz: Recently you wrote about debt being forgiven after seven years, but in your book “Deal With Your Debt,” I’m sure you said after four years credit-card debt is usually not collectible. Could you clarify? When I tell debt collectors about this, they merely laugh.
Answer: That’s understandable, because there is no forgiveness for most debt. It’s legally owed until it’s paid, settled or wiped out in Bankruptcy Court.
Each state sets limits on how long a creditor has to sue a borrower over an unpaid debt. Those limits vary by state and the type of debt. In California, credit card debt has a four-year statute of limitations. Creditors may continue collection efforts after four years; they’re just not supposed to file lawsuits.
Seven years is how long most negative marks, such as unpaid debts, can remain on your credit reports. Technically, most unpaid debts are supposed to be removed seven years and 180 days after the account first went delinquent.
Dear Liz: I have $8,000 in savings. Should I use it to pay the accrued interest on federal student loans that go into repayment soon? Or should I pay credit card debts of $662 at 11.24%, $3,840 at 7.99% and $3,000 at 6.99%?
Answer: Pay off the credit card debt. The interest isn’t tax deductible, and balances you carry on credit cards just eat into your economic well-being.
Your student loans, by contrast, offer fixed rates, a wealth of consumer protections and tax-deductible interest. You needn’t be in any rush to pay them off, particularly if you’re not already saving adequately for retirement and for emergencies. Federal student loans offer the opportunity to reduce or suspend payment without damaging your credit scores should you face economic difficulty and the possibility of forgiveness. Those aren’t options offered by credit card issuers.
If your student loan payments exceed 10% of your income when you do go into repayment, you should investigate the federal government’s “Pay as You Earn” program, which offers more manageable payments for many people, especially those with large debts and small incomes.
Dear Liz: My wife and I have paid off our mortgage, we have no car loans, and we pay our credit card balances completely each month, which means that we basically pay no interest. We have four credit cards that are active and a couple more that are rarely used. My FICO score is currently just above 800. At some point we will need to replace our cars and will need car loans, so our FICO scores will be important. Since we currently have no mortgage, no car loans or any other loans, will our FICO score slowly drop, and will that affect our car loans?
Answer: Paid-off loans typically don’t disappear from your credit reports, at least not immediately. Many lenders continue to report these closed accounts for years, which contributes positively to your scores.
Even if none of these paid obligations show up on your reports, though, your responsible use of credit cards should support your high scores. Just continue to use your cards lightly but regularly and pay off all balances in full.
Since you have time before you plan to replace your cars, consider paying cash for them, or at least making a substantial down payment. It’s typically best to use loans only for assets that appreciate — and cars certainly don’t do that.
Dear Liz: I have really bad credit. I always have because I have never really had any money. So now I am inheriting a lot of property and some cash. Most of the property is rental properties that bring in income. There are no mortgages on them. I may want to sell one or two of them and buy a four- or five-unit apartment building so I can live in one and rent the others out. How do I do that? Unfortunately, it isn’t happening as quickly as it should since one of my siblings thinks it is all hers. So I have to go through litigation first.
Answer: Let’s start with some reality checks.
The kind of litigation you’re talking about can get expensive fast and eat into the estate’s assets. If your sister happens to be the executor, she may be able to have the estate pay for her defense. You’ll need to come up with the money to hire your own attorney to advise you, but often in these cases a settlement makes a lot more sense than a family war.
The next reality check has to do with your bad credit. Yes, it’s harder to pay your bills on a low income, but people do it. In fact, income is not even a factor in credit scoring formulas, since how much money you make doesn’t predict whether you’ll pay your debts. If you have bad credit, it’s because you borrowed money that you didn’t pay back on time, not because you “never really had any money.”
What will change if you get your hands on a substantial amount of money is that your creditors will renew their efforts to get paid. You’ll probably need some more legal advice to deal with those efforts and to avoid getting sued.
What probably won’t change, without some effort, is your poor money management skills. If you don’t improve, you’ll probably blow right through your inheritance. So you should add to your list of advisors a fee-only planner who can help you with budgeting, rebuilding your credit, investing and retirement planning. Seeking good advice and following it are the key to making money last. You can get referrals to fee-only planners from the Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. Another option is the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at http://www.napfa.org.
Dear Liz: My wife and I accrued $28,000 of credit card debt over the past eight years. In addition to a sizable student loan bill for law school, our home mortgage and the expenses associated with three young children, we are struggling to get ahead enough to knock our credit card debt down. While we make good income between the two of us, it would seem not enough to pay more than the minimum on our debts. We have curbed a number of our bad habits (we eat out less, take lunch to work, say no to relatives) but the savings are not translating to lowered debt. Our 401(k)s are holding steady and we continue to contribute and I don’t want to touch those (I did when I was younger and regret it.). We’ve been considering taking out a home equity line of credit to pay off the cards and reduce the interest rate. Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt, but I think my wife got the picture when I said no family vacations for the next few years. What are your thoughts?
Answer: You say, “Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt,” but that’s exactly what many families do after they’ve used home equity borrowing to pay off their cards. They wind up deeper in the hole, plus they’ve put their home at risk to pay off debt that otherwise might be erased in Bankruptcy Court.
Bankruptcy probably isn’t in the cards for you, of course, given your resources. But before you use home equity to refinance this debt, you need to fix the problems that caused you to live so far beyond your means.
You’ve plugged some of the obvious leaks — eating out and mooching relatives — but you may be able to reduce other expenses, including your grocery and utility bills. If those smaller fixes don’t free up enough cash to start paying down the debt, the next places to look are at your big-ticket expenses: your home, your cars and your student loans. There may not be much you can do about the latter, although you should explore your options for consolidating and refinancing this debt. That leaves your home and your cars. If your payments on these two expenses are eating up more than about 35% of your income, then you should consider downsizing.
What you don’t want to do is to tap your retirement funds or reduce your contributions below the level that gets the full company match. Retirement needs to remain your top financial priority.
Reducing your lifestyle may not be appealing, but it’s better to sacrifice now while you’re younger than to wind up old and broke.