Q&A: How to pay down debt

Dear Liz: I am wondering about what to do with some debts I have due to divorce. I make about $50,000 a year and owe $50,000 in credit card debt, attorney’s fees and back property taxes. The good thing is that I own a house free and clear that is worth about $2.5 million. The bad thing is that my credit score is terrible, about 450. Should I slowly try to pay down my debt? Is there anyone who would lend me the money with a home equity line of credit or something similar? I have two children in college who need money from me as well.

Answer: Paying down what you owe over time could be difficult given the size of your debt relative to your income. Often when consumer debts equal or exceed a person’s annual pay, it’s time to consult a bankruptcy attorney. That may not be a good option for you, though, because a bankruptcy court might require you to sell your house to satisfy creditors. Only a handful of states, including Florida and Texas, protect the entire value of a home in bankruptcy.

You could try to get a home equity line of credit, but you’ll probably have a tough time finding a lender. If you succeed, you would face high interest rates.

Selling the house and downsizing could help you settle your debts and free up money for your children’s educations. That’s a big move, though, and could have tax as well as financial aid implications.

Your debt shouldn’t be your only concern. You also need to think about how you’ll pay for retirement and other future costs, such as medical expenses and long-term care.

You need some help making these decisions. A fee-only planner could look at your entire financial situation and offer advice, as well as referrals to tax and bankruptcy experts who could offer their assessments of your options.

Q&A: Co-pays and collections

Dear Liz: My primary care physician referred me to a gynecologist for a medical issue. I called the office three times and asked that the appointment be made as an annual exam.
During the appointment, the doctor was rude and critical of my body and lifestyle. (I am obese.) I left the appointment in tears before it was over.

Five months later, I got a $160 bill for the appointment. My insurance denied the claim twice, saying the doctor was double charging, but the office fought back, saying the charge was for the referral, not the annual exam.

I have tried to work with the doctor’s office and my insurance, but now the bill has gone to collections. It’s knocked my FICO score from 780 to 680 in a matter of months.

Part of me does not want to pay the bill because of the abuse I received from the doctor. However, this is affecting my finances. Would it help my FICO score if I negotiated with the bill collector and then repaid a part of the bill? What are my options?

Answer: Your best option is to ask the doctor’s office, politely, to take back the collection account in exchange for your paying the bill in full.

The doctor should not have been rude to you. But you shouldn’t have tried to get a referral for a medical issue treated as an annual exam. You were probably trying to avoid a co-pay, because health plans typically cover this type of preventive care, but that’s not why you were there.

You could ask whether the bill collector will delete the account from your credit reports. You would almost certainly have to pay the bill in full to win this concession, and even then the odds are against it.

That’s why it’s better to ask the medical provider to take back the account. In many cases, medical providers place accounts with collectors on assignment and have the ability to pull them back if they want.

The latest version of the FICO credit scoring formula ignores paid collections and treats unpaid medical collections less harshly than other collections. But that formula is just starting to be adopted, and the more commonly used previous version, FICO 8, ignores only collections worth less than $100.

As you’ve seen, even one dispute can lead to a big drop in your scores. If you feel an issue is worth pursuing, it often makes sense to pay the disputed bill and then seek justice in Small Claims court.

Q&A: Paying off student loans vs saving for retirement

Dear Liz: I’m engaged to be married and need your advice on getting started in the world of shared finances.

My fiance is 43, I’m 31. He’s debt free, with a savings account but no retirement fund. I have $34,000 in student loans (consolidated at 4.25%) and it weighs heavily on my mind as I’m desperate to become debt free. I’m debt free otherwise with $10,000 in savings.

We both make good money but my income as a freelancer is sporadic, while his is steady with periodic bursts of additional income.

We want to be debt free as a couple, save up a solid emergency fund and start making up for lost time on retirement savings, all while being aware that a family and a house might not be far away.

He’s very supportive and wants to pay off my student loans. Should I let him and pay “us” back to the emergency fund or maybe a house down-payment fund? What’s our best course of action to start on a solid financial footing?

Answer: You’re already behind on retirement savings, which should have started with your first job. Your fiance is even farther behind.

Don’t let your zeal to repay your debt blind you to the very real risk that you might not be able to save enough for a comfortable retirement if you don’t get started now.

If your education debt consists of federal student loans, then your low rate is fixed. The interest probably is tax deductible, which means the effective rate you’re paying is just a little over the inflation rate. It isn’t quite free money, but it’s pretty cheap.

You don’t need to be in a rush to pay it off, particularly with all your other financial priorities looming.

Instead, get going on some retirement accounts. Your fiance should take advantage of his workplace plan, if he has access to one.

Most employer-sponsored workplace plans have company matches, which really is free money you shouldn’t leave on the table. An individual retirement account or Roth IRA can supplement the plan or be a substitute if he doesn’t have access to a workplace plan.

As a freelancer, you have numerous options for setting aside money for retirement, including Simplified Employee Pensions (SEP), Savings Incentive Match for Employees (SIMPLE) and solo 401(k)s that would allow you to contribute more than the standard $5,500 annual limit for an IRA.

Ideally, you would be saving around 15% of your income and your fiance 20% or more.

If you can’t hit those targets just yet, start saving what you can and increase your contributions regularly. Work your other goals around the primary goal of being able to afford a decent retirement.

Q&A: Personal loan debt vs credit card debt

Dear Liz: I need to understand how credit reporting agencies treat personal unsecured loan debt versus credit card debt.

I am considering getting a personal loan from a reputable lender to pay down my credit card debt. The amount of my overall debt will still be the same, just in a different category. How will my credit score be affected?

Answer: What you need to understand is how credit scoring formulas treat installment debt (loans) versus revolving debt (credit cards). Credit reporting agencies maintain the credit reports used to create scores — but don’t bless (or curse) particular types of debt.

The personal loan’s overall effect on your credit scores is likely to be positive if you pay the loan on time. What you owe on an installment loan is typically treated more favorably than a similar balance on a credit card.

Installment loans have other advantages: You typically get a fixed rate, rather than the variable one charged on most credit cards, and your balance will be paid off over the term of the loan, which is usually three years. If you stop carrying balances on your credit cards, you should be in much better shape: free of debt with potentially higher scores.

Often the best place to get installment loans is from credit unions, which are member-owned financial institutions that may offer lower interest rates.

Avoid any lender that gives you a high-pressure sales pitch, that offers you a loan if you have bad credit or that pitches debt settlement, which is far more dangerous to your finances than a personal loan.

If the lender tries to tell you about a new “government program” that wipes out credit card debt or tries to collect big upfront fees, you’ve stumbled onto a scam.

Q&A: Debt collection

Dear Liz: I am trying to help my daughter deal with enormous student loans.

She is a doctor and very busy and simply cannot deal with the stress of almost $350,000 of education debt. I want to help her refinance, but to get the best rate I would like to help her improve her credit score (even if it is already 712).

She had three small debts turned over to a collection agency after a visit to an emergency room a couple of years ago. We plan to pay them off. Do I have to ask the collection agency to erase them or contact the original creditor?

Answer: You mention that your daughter has a 712 score, but she actually has many credit scores that change all the time. Small medical collections can have an outsize impact on those scores — or they can have no effect at all. It depends on what credit scoring formula the lender happens to use.

The latest version of the leading credit score, FICO 9, ignores paid collections and treats unpaid medical debt less harshly than other types of collection accounts. The most commonly used version, though, is FICO 8, which ignores only those collections under $100 and doesn’t differentiate medical from other collections.

Some lenders still use older versions of the formula that punish people for even small collections.

FICO also has a rival, the VantageScore. The latest and most-used version of that formula, VantageScore 3.0, also ignores paid collections.

You can contact the lenders you may use to refinance the debt to find out which scores they use, and which versions. That could help you decide how hard to push to get these collections erased.

If paid collections aren’t counted, you can just pay them off and be done with it. (You’ll of course want to keep the paperwork showing the debts have been paid and have your daughter check her credit reports to make sure the accounts reflect a zero balance.)

If the accounts could hurt her even if they’re paid, you have a couple of options.

One is to ask the hospital to take back the accounts, since medical bills are often placed with collection agencies on consignment rather than being sold to them outright. Then you can pay the hospital, and the collections should disappear. (Although, again, your daughter will need to follow up to make sure.)

Another option is to try to negotiate a “pay for deletion” — which means the collection agency promises to stop reporting the account in return for payment. You’ll want this agreement, if you can win it, to be in advance and in writing.

Q&A: Mistaken address leads to debt collection

Dear Liz: A debt collector says I owe a small debt from a store credit card I opened about six months ago. The wrong address was on file, so I hadn’t received any documentation at all. After opening the account I had called the store customer service line to arrange a payment, but the representative told me I had to wait for my account number and card in the mail. It never showed up, obviously, because of the wrong address issue. I understand that it was still my responsibility to pay this, but I called the store and then the bank that issued the card and got no response. Do I have any right to dispute the collection or at least catch a break?

Answer: The Fair Credit Billing Act requires that when accounts are opened, lenders send written notice about the account holder’s right to dispute errors, said credit expert Gerri Detweiler. Lenders are also supposed to send you statements when your account has activity (such as a balance due).

You could make the argument that the lender violated federal law by sending the information to the wrong address, Detweiler said, and that your credit scores have suffered as a result.

Yes, you should have contacted the store again after the card failed to arrive, but the lender should have fixed the problem and called off the collector once it was notified.

You can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at http://www.consumerfinance.gov and it will contact the lender to try to resolve the dispute. You’ll be able to log into the CFPB site to track the progress of its investigation.

You also should get copies of your credit reports and dispute any negative information related to this account, including any collections activity, said Detweiler, who writes about credit and debt at Credit.com.

Should the lender balk at removing the derogatory information from your credit reports, you can hire a consumer law attorney (referrals from http://www.naca.net) to press your case.

Q&A: Using a bonus to pay off debt

Dear Liz: I’m expecting a bonus this year of about $10,000. Should I pay off $6,000 in back taxes on which I’m currently paying $428 per month on a never-ending installment agreement? Or would it be better to pay off one of our $5,000 credit cards accruing 19% to 22% interest?

Answer: You didn’t mention some important factors: How much you owe on the credit cards, what the interest rate is on that installment agreement, or why you’re planning to use only about half of your bonus to pay off debt instead of at least 90% of it.

What is clear, though, is that you’re having some trouble living within your means. A fee-only planner who charges by the hour could help you figure out a budget. Online resources such as Mint.com or personal finance software such as Quicken or You Need a Budget also might be helpful. Another low-cost source of help would be a credit counselor affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org).

All things being equal, it’s usually best to pay off your highest-rate debts first. If you owe so much on credit cards that you have no hope of paying them off within five years, however, you might be wise to spend some of your bonus consulting a bankruptcy attorney.

Q&A: Can installment loans help repair bad credit?

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.

Q&A: Medical debt liability and separation

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.

Q&A: Credit card debt and surviving spouses

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.