Q&A: Co-signing for a student loan backfires

Dear Liz: My wife and I both had excellent credit scores. Now mine are in the dump. I co-signed for a friend’s daughter’s school loan 10 years ago. I know now this was a bad mistake. I guaranteed $25,000. Now two things have happened: The daughter quit paying the loan and the friendship took a bad turn.

This is seriously hurting my credit. We have already been told when trying to refinance our mortgage that we’ll need to fix the school loan, which is showing more than 90 days behind. The outstanding balance is $20,000. I can pay the loan off. Making payments just adds interest to the problem. Are there any other options to repair my credit that don’t rely on the daughter’s ability to keep the loan current?

Answer: If you can pay the loan off, then do. You are legally responsible for this debt, and the longer it goes unpaid the worse the damage to your credit scores.

If this were a federal student loan, you would have the option of rehabilitation, which can erase some of the negative marks on your credit reports after you make a series of on-time payments. Because it’s a private loan — I know this because federal student loans don’t have co-signers — you probably don’t have a rehabilitation option (although it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask).

Once the loan is paid off, you can proceed with the refinancing but you probably will find that lenders want to base the loan on your battered scores, rather than your wife’s better ones. That means you might not qualify, or you might have to pay a much higher rate. If she can qualify for the refinance on her own, that’s one option. Otherwise, you might have to wait for your credit to heal before you refinance.

Q&A: Questions for a financial advisor

Dear Liz: I have some investments at a financial investment firm. My advisor said that because I am 62, I can transfer money from my 401(k) at my job into my account with his firm. He says he can do better with the amount I currently have in the 401(k). Of course I will continue to work and put in money into my 401(k). Does this sound like bad advice? The amount I would be trying to transfer would be around $62,000.

Answer: By doing better, does he mean doing such a spectacular job of investing that he rivals the legendary Warren Buffett? Because he might have to do just that to compensate for your giving up years of tax-deferred compounding.

Because you’re over 591/2, you can access your 401(k) balance without penalty, but you still must pay income taxes on any withdrawals. Investments in a regular account would be subject to income and capital gains taxes going forward.

It’s possible he wants you to roll the money over into an individual retirement account instead, which would spare you the tax bill and allow the money to continue growing tax-deferred. But unless you have a truly awful, high-cost plan, it’s hard to see how he can promise better results.

The Labor Department just approved a rule that requires advisors to adopt a fiduciary standard when providing advice about retirement funds. “Fiduciary” means the advisor is required to put clients’ interests ahead of his or her own. You might ask him if this advice aligns with the standards and if he’s willing to put that promise in writing. If not, you could be forgiven for suspecting that he’s more motivated by what he can earn via commissions or other fees than by doing what’s right by you.

Q&A: Social Security family maximum

Dear Liz: My husband is disabled from a stroke and is on Social Security disability. I am 65 and nearing retirement. I keep seeing Social Security rules about “family maximums.” Does this mean that I won’t get my full retirement amount if, between his SSDI and my retirement, we exceed the family maximum? Or will my retirement amount be what I actually earned?

Answer: You’ll get what you earned. The family limit refers to the maximum benefits that can be paid out based on one worker’s earning record. They kick in when multiple family members claim benefits, such as spousal and child benefits in addition to the worker’s retirement benefit. The rules are stricter for disabled family benefits than for retirement family benefits, but that doesn’t affect you since you’ll be claiming a check based on your own work record.

Q&A: Adding daughter as co-owner of mother’s home could trigger costs

Dear Liz: My father passed away last year, and my mother wants to add my name to her house so there is no probate. Do I need to change the title or the deed or both? Are there any negatives to doing so? Also, we already have a durable power of attorney between us. Does that offer me any benefits as far as real estate? What does it offer me in general?

Answer: A deed is the legal document that transfers the title or ownership of a property. Please don’t alter the home’s documents until you consult an estate-planning attorney. Your mother’s desire to avoid the costs of probate could inadvertently trigger much larger costs.

Adding you as a co-owner could mean giving up a big tax benefit, for example. If your mother bequeaths the house to you when she dies, you won’t owe any tax on the gain in the house’s value during her lifetime. If she adds you to the title, she’s gifting you half the house. In that case, you potentially could owe tax on some of that gain even after she dies. If she wants to preserve tax benefits while avoiding the court process known as probate, she may need a living trust.

There could be other complications if you should die or be sued, which is why it’s important to get good advice before proceeding.

As for the durable power of attorney: It isn’t designed to give you benefits. Powers of attorney allow you to make decisions for your mother if she becomes incapacitated. Those decisions need to be in her best interest, not yours.

Q&A: Catching up on retirement savings

Dear Liz: I just found out I am cured of cancer. I thought I would be dead in three years and thus did not save very much. I’m 62, single, with no children and an annual salary of $85,000. I’m now contributing the maximum to my employer’s 403(b) retirement plan plus $6,500 to a Roth IRA. My mortgage balance is $380,000 on a 30-year loan fixed at 3.65%. I have about $380,000 in equity. I have about $30,000 saved outside of my $10,000 emergency fund. What should I do with it to get the highest return with minimal risk?

Answer: There’s no such thing as an investment that offers high returns with minimal risk. You get one or the other.

There’s also no such thing as “making up” for decades of not saving, short of an extremely unlikely windfall such as a lottery win or a big inheritance. This is why financial planners tell young people to start saving for retirement from their first paychecks and not to stop or touch those funds prematurely. Waiting until the last minute simply won’t work, and the longer you delay the tougher it will be to catch up — until catching up becomes impossible.

Still, at some point you won’t be able to keep working, so you need to save what you can. The more you save, the better off you’ll be.

Continue to take full advantage of your retirement savings options. Thanks to catch-up provisions, you can put up to $24,000 in your workplace retirement fund (the 2016 limit of $18,000 plus a $6,000 “catch up” for those 50 and over) and $6,500 into an IRA or Roth IRA (the 2016 limit of $5,500 plus a $1,000 catch-up). You’ve saving more than a third of your income, and several years of contributions like that will go a long way toward easing your final years. A balanced approach to your investments, with 50% to 60% in stocks, should give you the growth you’ll need to overcome inflation over the decades to come.

Your home could be another source of funds. Downsizing or moving to a lower-cost area could free up some of your equity to bolster your nest egg. Another option could be a reverse mortgage, but make sure you get objective, expert advice before you proceed.

Finally, it’s crucial to delay claiming Social Security as long as possible, since this benefit is likely to comprise most of your income in retirement and you want that check to be as large as possible. Try to put off claiming until age 70 when your benefit maxes out.

Q&A: Finding fee-only financial planners

Dear Liz: Every so often your column mentions an organization that lists financial planners that are fee-only. I cannot find this information on your site. Please keep mentioning this in your column.

Answer: You can get referrals to fee-only planners who charge by the hour at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. If you’re looking for fee-only planners who charge a retainer or a percentage of assets, you’ll find those at

Q&A: Fixing a wounded credit score

Dear Liz: My wife and I co-signed on our daughter’s mortgage, then the home went into foreclosure. My wife and I have no debt and a net worth that exceeds $1 million. We purchased our cars with cash and the single credit card we have with a $35,000 limit is paid off in full each month. Since the foreclosure, our FICO score has been in the “fair” range. We have no plans to take out a loan for anything and plan to continue our “cash and carry” lifestyle. However, the low FICO is a little disconcerting. It appears the only cure is time (measured in years). We welcome any additional guidance.

Answer: You can’t fix your wounded FICO scores overnight, but you could speed up your credit score rehabilitation by adding one or two more credit accounts to your mix. At least one of those accounts should be an installment loan, since scoring formulas want evidence you can handle different types of credit. If you don’t want an auto or personal loan, then consider a “credit builder” loan that puts your payments into a certificate of deposit that you claim when all the payments have been made. Credit builder loans are offered by credit unions and some online lenders.

Is it worth the effort, even though you don’t plan to borrow? In most states (although not California), credit scores heavily influence what you pay for auto and homeowners’ insurance. People who don’t have the best scores can pay hundreds of dollars more each year for coverage. Credit scores also may be used to determine deposits for utilities and wireless service. If you need to rent an apartment, your credit scores matter as well.

If none of those are a concern, you can continue to take the slow road to rebuilding your credit, since the foreclosure will fall off your credit reports after seven years. If you want to speed things along, though, another credit account or two should help.

Q&A: Options for paying a big IRS bill

Dear Liz: I sold one mutual fund to invest in another fund with the same company. The tax statement shows this as a capital gain so large that I cannot afford to pay it all in one payment to the IRS. This is a disaster. Is there anything I can do?

Answer: Absolutely. File your tax return on time, since the failure-to-file penalty is much higher than the failure-to-pay penalty. Pay as much as you can when you file the return, and then consider your options.

If you can come up with the remainder within 120 days, then do so. There’s no need to arrange a formal payment plan, but you will owe interest and penalties on the balance until it’s repaid.

If you can’t pay within 120 days, you can ask for an installment agreement. You’ll find an application in most tax software or you can find Form 9465 on the Internal Revenue Service website. You also can try calling the IRS at (800) 829-1040, but prepare for a long time listening to hold music. Budget cuts have left the agency severely short-handed and wait times are considerable.

You also should consider borrowing the money from another source, such as a low-cost personal loan. Another option is to charge what you owe to a low-rate credit card. You’ll pay a small fee for the privilege, but ultimately it may be cheaper than paying interest and penalties to the IRS.

Q&A: How much does a fee-only financial planner cost?

Dear Liz: You frequently suggest consulting a fee-only financial planner, such as those who are members of the Garrett Planning Network, which seems like great advice. Can you provide any guidance on how much one should expect to pay for the services of this type of planner? We are a couple living in Los Angeles looking for a pre-retirement evaluation. That would probably include evaluation of existing investments, insurance needs, Social Security, long-term care, etc. How should we evaluate a quote of $3,000 for a full review estimated at 10 hours or $300 an hour?

Answer: The cost for a comprehensive financial plan varies depending on where you live and the planner’s experience level, among other factors. Nationally, the range is typically from $150 to $300 an hour, so $3,000 for 10 hours in Los Angeles is at the high (but not unreasonable) end of the scale, assuming the planner has several years’ experience.

Another way to get a feel for going rates is by interviewing a couple of other fee-only planners in your area. If the cost you’re quoted is dramatically lower, though, make sure the planner isn’t accepting commissions as well. Some planners are “fee based,” which means they accept both fees from clients and commissions on the products they recommend. You can ask for the planner’s Form ADV, a form filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Part II of this form contains information about how the planner is compensated.

Q&A: Letting car be repossessed will make debt problem worse

Dear Liz: I own a car that I can no longer afford. Unfortunately, buying it was a poor decision and came with terrible interest rates and terms. I’ve been 30 to 60 days late on the payments for close to a year and have other debts that I haven’t been able to pay. Because of this, my credit is already in the basement. I’m underwater on the car (by about $7,000) and am feeling like the only option is to have it “voluntarily” repossessed. I really feel that if I didn’t have this $400 payment and another $200 a month in car-related costs, I could get my other debts squashed, build some savings and get in a much better place financially. I should mention that I have another (free!) car available to me when I need it and live in an area with reliable public transit, plus I have carpooling options that can get me to and from work at little to no cost. I have no major plans for anything that would require amazing credit scores. I have a stable job and rent an apartment with my boyfriend, who has strong credit but not a huge capacity to help financially. Am I insane? How would I even begin to recover from a repossession?

Answer: Having your car repossessed won’t relieve you of the debt. In fact, your debt is likely to increase.

Repossession costs such as storage, preparation for sale and attorney fees can be added to your loan balance. You’ll owe the difference between that amount and the price the creditor gets for the vehicle when it’s resold, often at auction.

If you don’t pay what you owe, your creditor can sue you — and probably will, given that nice steady job with reliable wages that can be garnished.

So yes, you probably would be insane to think repossession is the answer to your situation.

Usually the best solution when you owe more than a car is worth is to “drive out of the loan” — in other words, to own the car at least until the loan is paid off. In your case, the best solution may be to park the car while you pay it off. A parked car doesn’t need much gas or maintenance (as long as you start it occasionally). You may be able to get discounts on insurance and registration if you don’t operate it.

If you still can’t make ends meet, then get a second job that will bring in some extra cash. Pay off the loan as quickly as possible and then start saving to pay cash for your next car. Also work on repairing your credit so that if you want loans in the future you’ll be able to get decent rates and terms.