Q&A: Friend erroneously declared deceased

Dear Liz: I have an elderly friend who was recently erroneously declared deceased by the Social Security Administration. She received no notice of this declaration and her first awareness that something might be wrong was when her personal checks and automatic payments to utilities and others began to bounce. When she called her bank, she was informed that all of her accounts had been frozen by the Social Security Administration.

My friend is now faced with multiple returned check charges, threatening phone calls and cut-off services. Efforts to straighten things out with Social Security and her bank have been only moderately successful so far. Although they will probably clear things up eventually, this will take time and quite a bit of legwork on her part.

Under what authority does Social Security freeze someone’s assets? And is this common? Aren’t they required to at least notify someone of impending action? After all, when any one of us does in fact die, we still have financial obligations and such actions can only create headaches for survivors.

Answer: The Social Security Administration doesn’t freeze bank accounts, but it does erroneously declare people dead a few thousand times every year. Financial institutions check Social Security’s death notices and may freeze or close accounts as a result. It can take weeks or months to clear up the confusion.

People in this situation should visit their local Social Security office and bring some identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, to establish that they are, in fact, alive. Social Security will issue a letter called an “Erroneous Death Case — Third Party Contact” notice that can be shown to financial institutions, doctors and others who may have been misinformed of their deaths. Your friend should not only ask that services be restored but that bounced-check fees and other costs be waived. There’s no guarantee that they will be, but she should ask.

Your friend also might consider whether it’s time to ask for help in managing her finances. It sounds from your description as if she didn’t notice the problem for quite some time. Utilities don’t shut off service at the first missed payment. Threatening phone calls — presumably from collection agencies — typically don’t start until accounts are months overdue. She should consider adding a trusted person to her checking account or at least sharing online credentials so that another set of eyes is monitoring what’s going on with her money.

Q&A: Job hopping can be a good strategy for young workers

Dear Liz: I am a millennial and just started a new job at a very small company. I really like the work I do and the leaders of the company. However, I don’t make enough to move out of my parents’ home and be financially secure. I live in the Washington, D.C., area and make $50,000. For an entry-level position it’s a good salary, but this area is so expensive. I wanted to stay at this company for at least two years to add stability to my resume. Now I’m considering moving to a cheaper area so I can move out on my own and not face a financial strain. But I don’t want to be a millennial job hopper, and I don’t want to disappoint my boss.

Answer: Being a millennial job hopper can actually be a good thing in the long run. A 2014 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that people who switch jobs more often early in their careers have higher incomes later in life. Economists Martin Gervais, Nir Jaimovich, Henry Siu and Yaniv Yedid-Levi contend that young job-changers are more likely to find their true calling, which leads to greater productivity and higher income. Sticking with one job can mean settling for paltry raises, while changing jobs can mean bigger jumps in pay.

Changing locations, meanwhile, can be a powerful way to boost your standard of living. Living on a below-average income in a city with above-average costs can be a recipe for misery, so congratulations on being willing to explore alternatives. Since you’re living in one of the costliest cities in the U.S., those alternatives include most of the U.S.

The good news is that you have a job and a place to live, so you can take your time searching for what’s next. In the meantime, you can build up your savings to help pay for the move.

As for disappointing your boss, understand that most bosses are grown-ups. They realize that people can and do move on to better opportunities.

Q&A: How to build a cushion against all those pesky expenses

Dear Liz: We’re both retired and live on retirement checks. When expenses exceed our income, we draw from savings, but the balance is going down fast due to a new air conditioning unit, real estate taxes, etc. How do we put that money back and build a cushion in the checking account so our savings isn’t used to cover us month to month?

Answer: You need an emergency fund for truly unpredictable expenses, but you also should have a bunch of savings “buckets” to cover less regular but still predictable expenses. These would include property taxes, insurance, home repairs, car repairs, vacations, medical bills, holiday expenses and any other bill you face regularly but not monthly. You can track these buckets in a spreadsheet or set up separate savings accounts for each goal. Online banks typically let you set up multiple savings subaccounts for free.

Here’s how it works. If your next property tax installment is due in six months and you’ll owe $3,000, you transfer $500 a month into the property tax savings account to cover that bill. If you’re planning on a vacation in nine months, divide the expected cost by nine and transfer that amount to savings each month.

Estimating some costs can be tricky. You often can use last year’s spending as a guide, or seek out authoritative sources. Edmunds.com’s True Cost to Own feature, for example, can help you estimate repair and maintenance costs for many vehicles. With home repairs, Consumer Reports can help you calculate how long various systems tend to last and how much they cost to replace, which will allow you to save accordingly. Or you can just use the rule of thumb to put aside 1% of your home’s value each year into an account to cover maintenance and repairs.

You may not always guess correctly, but setting aside something throughout the year can help you meet these big expenses as they arise without having to dip into your emergency fund.

You may discover that you can’t set aside enough to cover these less regular expenses and still pay your monthly bills. If that’s the case, you may not be able to afford your current lifestyle and may need to trim some costs.

Q&A: Parents paying a child’s private student loans

Dear Liz: My husband and I are paying my youngest son’s private student loans. My husband is paying two loans and I’m paying three. I have plans to retire next year. Should I tell the lenders after I retire and give my loans to my son to take over?

Answer: If these are private student loans, then you and your husband probably co-signed them with your son. That means you’re equally responsible for the debt and can’t just walk away without consequence.

Some lenders do release co-signers if the student borrower is creditworthy. The lenders typically don’t volunteer information about this option, so your son would need to request it. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a form letter your son can use to ask for information about the process.

If that doesn’t work, your son may be able to refinance or consolidate the loans with a new lender to get your names off the loans.

All this assumes your son is willing and able to take over this responsibility. If he’s not and you stop paying, your credit scores will suffer and you could face collection actions.

Q&A: The insecurity of bank security questions

Dear Liz: I recently opened an account at a bank that boasted “multi-factor authentication,” but I looked into the claim and it turns out the bank is using passwords plus answers to security questions, such as the name of your first pet, as the “multi-factor authentication.” I expect you know that the real multi-factors are something you know, like a username and password, something you have, like a code that has been sent to your phone or email, and something uniquely inherent to you, like a fingerprint. Clearly, this bank is misrepresenting its “multi-factor authentication.”

Answer: If there was any doubt about how insecure security questions are, it should have been settled with the hack of the IRS’ Get Transcript service. The criminals gained access to 700,000 taxpayer accounts by correctly answering multiple questions with answers supposedly known only to the affected taxpayers. In reality, the answers to many security questions can be purchased from black market databases or simply found by perusing people’s social media accounts.

If your financial institutions are still using security questions to identify you, you should demand to know why. If the institution doesn’t offer at least two-factor authentication (a password plus a code), you should consider putting your money somewhere else.

Q&A: Social Security survivor’s benefit

Dear Liz: My husband will retire next spring but has wisely decided to not collect Social Security until he is 70. I have been retired for several years and have been collecting my Social Security benefits, which are significantly less than what his will be because he was the higher wage earner. Should he die before age 70, would I still be able to claim, as his surviving spouse, his larger benefit, even though he would not have started collecting it yet? The information I read only talks in terms of the higher wage earner already collecting Social Security benefits before his or her demise.

Answer: Even if your husband dies before starting Social Security, you can collect the larger benefit he’s earned, including any delayed retirement credits from putting off his application.

Those delayed retirement credits increase his benefit, and yours as the surviving spouse, by 8% each year between his full retirement age of 66 and age 70. That can make a huge difference in the quality of life of the surviving spouse, who has to get by on a single check after the other partner dies.

Q&A: Paying credit card debt after death

Dear Liz: I am 80 and I have a substantial amount of credit card debt, approximately $30,000. What becomes of this credit card debt in the event of my death? Will it become a future liability for my two sons or will this eventually become a bad debt for the credit card company? I would hate to see this become a financial burden for my sons.

Answer: Any credit card balances you leave behind will be a liability for your estate, not for your sons — although the debt could reduce any inheritance they get. Creditors have to be paid before any remaining assets are distributed. If you don’t have enough assets to cover the bill, creditors will get a proportionate amount of whatever’s left after paying your final expenses. Any remaining debt will be a write-off for the creditor, and your sons typically wouldn’t get anything.

You didn’t ask for help dealing with this debt, but you shouldn’t assume you can just tread water until you die and leave it for someone else to sort out. Your life expectancy at age 80 is another eight years if you’re male and nearly 10 years if you’re female, and you could live considerably longer. If overspending or medical bills led to the debt, you could accrue a lot more before you’re done. If you rack up so much debt that you can’t make the minimum payments, your interest rates could skyrocket and you may have to fend off collection calls.

You should at least discuss your options with an experienced bankruptcy attorney and with a nonprofit credit counselor.

Q&A: Spouse balks at wife’s franchise-financing scheme

Dear Liz: My wife has an MBA and essentially has been a homemaker due to having a disabled child. She would like to go back to work and has asked me to cosign a $1.5-million loan to buy a franchise. In addition, she would like to use all the savings we have —$140,000 — for a down payment. I am afraid to do this as it took over 20 years to get the emergency fund collected. She earlier suggested using my 401(k) retirement fund for this business. My fear is that she will not be able to manage this business well and I will have to add this onto my own job. The business may fail and all the money would be lost. She is so mad at me and will not talk to me. Please help me with this.

Answer: Your wife understands that her long absence from the workplace makes it unlikely that she will ever see the kind of salary that an MBA normally earns. So she’s decided to bypass regular employment in favor of entrepreneurship.

If there were a decent chance of her succeeding, this enterprise might be considered a gamble. Given the circumstances, however, it’s almost certain to fail. If you commit every spare dollar to the down payment, where will you turn when the business needs additional infusions of cash, as most businesses do in their early years?

There are other businesses she could start and other franchises she could buy that wouldn’t require committing such a huge chunk of your resources. The fact that she’s clinging to this one idea doesn’t speak well of her ability to make good business decisions. Even worse is that when you expressed perfectly rational fears about her scheme, she responded by refusing to speak to you. It’s definitely time to make an investment, but it should be in couple’s therapy rather than in a business.

Q&A: What to consider before paying off a vehicle loan

Dear Liz: In January, I used financing to buy a used car, and now I have about $8,000 left to pay off. I recently received a windfall and can pay off that debt in full. Is there any reason to not go ahead and do that? This car loan is my only current debt. However, I do anticipate buying a home and thus getting a mortgage in the near future. Additionally, would paying off the car loan help lower my auto insurance payment?

Answer: Having an open installment loan showing on your credit reports can help your scores, according to credit expert Barry Paperno, who used to work for leading credit scoring firm FICO. But paying it off shouldn’t hurt you much if at all. By contrast, paying off revolving debts such as credit card balances can give a real boost to your scores.

Paying off the loan should save you some interest and eliminating the payment could help you qualify for a bigger mortgage. Those are real advantages. Still, there may be better uses for your windfall. Are you taking full advantage of your 401(k) match, if your company offers one? If you don’t have a workplace retirement plan, are you contributing to an IRA? Do you have an emergency fund?

A paid-off car doesn’t automatically qualify for lower insurance rates. You can consider dropping collision and comprehensive coverage on older cars, since you’re no longer required to carry that coverage, but make sure that you’re comfortable with the risk of not getting anything from your own insurer to repair or replace your car if, for example, you cause an accident and your car is damaged.

Q&A: Social Security benefits for children

Dear Liz: My husband was 51 when our last child was born, meaning that our son was only 15 when my husband turned 66. Because I was working full time and we had sufficient income, we adhered to the traditional advice of delaying my husband’s Social Security payment. However, when he filed this past year at age 69, we learned that our son is eligible to receive a considerable monthly amount. Fortunately, the Social Security office was able to backdate my husband’s application for six months, but nevertheless we lost out on several thousand dollars by not filing when my husband was 66. Although his monthly payout would have been lower, the accumulated difference would have been considerable with our son’s payment. Therefore, although most retiring people do not have minor children, I believe that all financial advisors should be aware of this option and that those parents should plan carefully to maximize their payout.

Answer: More than 4 million children receive Social Security benefits because their parents are disabled or deceased or have reached retirement age. A child can receive up to half the parent’s disability or retirement check. If the parent dies, a child’s survivor benefit can be up to 75% of the parent’s basic benefit. (There’s a limit to how much a family can receive, though, which ranges from 150% to 180% of the parent’s check.) Benefits typically stop at age 18, although they can continue until two months past the child’s 19th birthday if the child is still in high school. Benefits can continue indefinitely if the child is disabled.

Children’s benefits can be subject to the same earnings test that reduces Social Security retirement checks if the parent claims early and continues working. So it often makes sense to wait to start benefits until the parent is full retirement age, currently 66, when the earnings test no longer applies. You’re right that delaying beyond that age may not make sense when the child is young enough to receive benefits, since they can considerably boost a family’s total benefit.

Having minor children at retirement age definitely complicates the calculation of when to take benefits. Many free Social Security claiming calculators don’t let you include minor children in your calculation, so if you’re in this situation it can be worth paying $40 to get a customized claiming strategy from calculators such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.