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Q&A Category

Dear Liz: My credit reports don’t show any of my old unpaid collection accounts. I also have one judgment that is not showing from 2005. My wife (who has perfect credit) and I are looking to apply for a mortgage. What will the lender find? I recently applied for a credit card to start rebuilding my credit. The issuer approved me for a card with a $1,000 limit and told me my score was in the high 700s. I am so confused.

Answer: If your collection accounts are older than seven years, your lender shouldn’t see them when it reviews your credit reports. Most negative marks have to be dropped from reports seven years and six months after the date the account first went delinquent. Civil judgments also have to be dropped after seven years unless your state has a longer statute of limitations; in that case, the judgment can be reported until the statute expires. California’s statute of limitations for judgments is 10 years.

If none of those negative marks shows on your reports and you’ve handled credit responsibly since then, your credit scores (you have more than one) may well be excellent.

Since you’ll be in the market for a major loan, you and your wife should get your FICO scores from MyFico.com. Mortgage lenders will look at all six scores (one from each of the three credit bureaus for you and your wife), basing your rate and terms on the lower of the two middle scores. If that score is 740 or above, you should get the best rate and terms the lender offers.

Your FICO scores will cost $20 each, which is a bit of an investment. You can get free scores from various online sites, but those aren’t the FICO scores that mortgage lenders use and are of limited help in understanding what rate and terms you’re likely to get.

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Q&A: An Update

May 12, 2014 | | Comments (1)

Dear Liz: I think you were way too hard on the young man who said his 30-year-old girlfriend’s lack of retirement savings was a potential deal breaker. You told him to get off his high horse. He was just being prudent.

Answer: It would be prudent to regard massive debt, alcoholism or drug use as deal breakers for a relationship. Elevating the young woman’s lack of retirement savings to this level is just over the top. But let’s hear what the young man himself had to say:

Dear Liz: I want to say thank you for taking the time to write on my question. I was able to find a few charts online and show her [the power of compounded returns]. She got excited about it and is now putting in to get the company match (5%).

Thank you very much for putting me in my place. I did not mean to come across as if I was better. I have been very lucky to have been able to save and be taught about compounding at an early age.

Answer: One of the potential hazards of being good with money is arrogance. We can become convinced that we know better and that other people should do things our way. It takes some humility to understand that not everyone has had the advantages we’ve had or been able to take in the information as we’ve done. Understanding that makes it easier to find compromises in a relationship that work for both parties.
Good luck with your relationship. She sounds like a keeper.

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Q&A: Social Security Payouts

May 12, 2014 | | Comments (10)

Dear Liz: My wife and I, 63 and 62, plan to continue working till at least 65. We will begin collecting Social Security benefits in September. Our combined income is $58,000, we own our home outright, and we have no debt, no children, $84,000 in a traditional IRA and $90,000 in a stock portfolio.

I just sold a portion of a mutual fund for a $30,000 gain that is in the bank for the time being. How long do we have to reinvest without paying a capital gains tax? Or would it be best to pay the tax now, leave the money in the bank and be done with it?

Answer: Unless you sell another investment for a $30,000 loss to offset the gain, you’re going to have to pay taxes on your profit.

“There is no way to do a tax-free reinvestment,” said tax professional Eva Rosenberg, an enrolled agent who runs the TaxMama.com site. “And the time to ask questions like that is before you sell the mutual funds.”

You still have time to avoid a much bigger mistake: signing up for Social Security now.

Your Social Security checks would be reduced $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain level, which this year is $15,480. That “earnings test” applies until you reach your full retirement age (which is 66, not 65, for both you and your wife). What’s more, you would lock in lower benefits for life and give up a chance to boost your Social Security payout in a way that’s available only to married couples who wait until full retirement age to start benefits. (More on that in a moment.)

Your savings are too small to generate much income, particularly if you want to minimize the chances of running out of money. You should be looking to maximize your Social Security benefits to help make up for that deficit. Your benefits grow substantially each year you put off applying for them, and most people will live past the break-even point where delaying benefits until full retirement age results in more money than taking them early.

Many people erroneously think they should grab Social Security as early as they can, but the Social Security system isn’t going away, and you are likely to regret settling for a smaller check. Remember that your wife probably will outlive you and will have to get by on one check, so you should make sure your benefits are as big as they can be.

One way to do that is for the lower-earning spouse to claim spousal benefits at his or her full retirement age. Once the lower earner’s benefit maxes out at age 70, he or she can switch if that benefit is larger.

But spousal benefits can’t start until the higher earner files for his or her own benefit. If the higher earner waits until full retirement age to apply, he or she has the option to “file and suspend” — a maneuver that lets the spouse claim spousal benefits while leaving the higher earner’s benefit untouched so it can continue to grow.

This “claim now, claim more later” strategy is available only to people who wait until their full retirement age to start.

Your tax question and your plan to start Social Security early indicate you could really use some sessions with a fee-only financial planner. Such a consultation is a good idea for everyone as they’re approaching retirement, but in your case, it’s essential.

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Q&A: Inheritances

May 05, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about people who expect inheritances they don’t get. Here’s another situation. My elderly dad thought he’d tied up everything in a trust, but his surviving elderly second spouse regularly invaded the principal instead of just receiving the interest. She would simply call her broker and ask for whatever she wanted. The broker, not being a knowledgeable trust officer, would send her the money. Finally, to soothe a fretting sibling, my husband and I paid for an estate lawyer to move the trust from Stepmom’s broker to a good third-party trust institution. It took more than a year plus paying a fee (OK, a bribe) for Stepmom to relinquish her direct access to the trust. She continued to receive the interest and was quite well off. She never did understand why we thought she was doing something wrong.

Answer: People set up trusts for a variety of reasons, but the type you’re describing is usually used to preserve an inheritance for the children while allowing the surviving spouse to live off the income. These trusts typically allow the survivor to tap the principal for certain purposes (“health, education, maintenance and support” is the usual phrase used). A trustee who’s asleep at the switch may allow the spouse to dig too deep, which not only reduces the children’s inheritance but also endangers the whole structure of the trust, which is designed to save future estate taxes. Your investment in hiring a competent trustee could save a lot of expense and hassle in the long run.

Categories : Estate planning, Q&A
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Q&A: Millionaires and social security

May 05, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I have a friend who is a multimillionaire. He told me what he collects in Social Security, and it was much less than what I receive even though my income while I was working was small. He said because of his status, Social Security pays him much less. Is that true? I thought your benefits are based on what your income was.

Answer: They are. The Social Security system was designed to replace a larger percentage of income for lower-paid workers, based on the idea that these workers had less opportunity to save for their future. The higher your income, the lower the percentage of your pay the system is designed to replace.

But people who earned high salaries during their working lifetime will reap bigger checks than those who didn’t, all other factors being equal.

Assuming your friend is telling the truth about his benefit, there are several explanations for why he’s getting less. One is that he was a business owner who controlled his own pay and deliberately kept down the amount of his salary that was subject to payroll taxes. (People think they’re saving money by doing this, until it’s time to claim Social Security and they realize what it has cost them.)

Another possibility is that he has income from another source, such as a public pension, that would reduce his check because of the government’s windfall elimination provisions.

Other possibilities: Perhaps he started his benefits early, while you delayed yours to let them grow. Or maybe he was one of those diligent, frugal people who built wealth on a smaller income. Or it could be he was talking about his after-tax benefit, since Social Security benefits are taxable once your income exceeds certain amounts.

Those are just some possibilities, but he definitely isn’t receiving a smaller check than you just because he’s rich.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Q&A: Buyer’s remorse?

May 05, 2014 | | Comments (2)

Dear Liz: I am a single mom who has been renting a condo for seven years. My landlord decided to increase my rent and for two weeks I didn’t know by how much. In the meantime, I looked for a house so I would have a Plan B. I found a totally renovated foreclosure. By the time I found out what my new rental amount would be (just $46 a month more), my son and I had decided to get the house. I used my entire life’s savings of $25,000 as my down payment. Now I owe $62,000. Do you think I made the right decision to buy the house, or should I have stayed in the condo and continued renting? I am torn.

Answer: Of course you are. That’s a very common emotion after taking such a big step.

Tying up all your money in a single purchase or investment is never ideal, but what’s done is done. Focus now on rebuilding your savings (including your retirement savings) and keeping your house in good shape so that you don’t face expensive repairs down the road.

You’re unlikely to get any tax benefit from this home, given your enviably small mortgage, but you will build equity over time as you pay down the loan. You’ll quickly discover the many challenges and rewards of owning a home, which most people prefer to renting.

Categories : Q&A, Real Estate
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Q&A: Social Security and spousal benefits

Apr 28, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I just got laid off and will be collecting unemployment. In January, I will be eligible for Social Security at my full retirement age of 66. Can I collect 50% of my spouse’s benefits (he is 76) instead of collecting on my record and continue to let my Social Security benefits grow until age 70?

Answer: Yes. As long as you wait until your own full retirement age to apply for spousal benefits, you retain the option of switching to your own benefit later. If you apply for spousal benefits early, you are locked into the smaller payment and can’t switch.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Q&A: What to do with an old IRA?

Apr 27, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I left a job several years ago to become a full-time freelancer. I have a SEP IRA and a SIMPLE IRA from that job that have basically just been sitting there. What are my options in moving this money to a better retirement investment?

Answer: SEPs and SIMPLEs are just the tax-advantaged buckets into which you (and your then-employer) put money. It’s the investments you choose within those buckets that determine what kind of returns you’ll get. The financial institution that’s holding these accounts can be a factor as well: If it’s charging a lot of fees, your returns will suffer accordingly.

Your best bet is to make sure the accounts are being held at a low-cost provider and that you have sufficient exposure to stocks to offer growth that will offset inflation over time. Most discount brokerages and mutual fund companies offer target-date maturity funds that give you diversification, professional asset allocation and automatic rebalancing at a low cost.

Categories : Investing, Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: I got a big tax refund this year and am trying to figure out what to do with the money. Right now I have school loans with a 4% interest rate that I do not need to make a payment on until 2024 with my current payment plan, but the amount I owe is pretty hefty and I know it’s going to compound more over time. I also have a very low-interest car loan (1.9%) that will be paid off in 31/2 years. I also could put that money in the market in hopes that it will grow. I should add I am 27 years old. Any advice?

Answer: Yes: Please review the terms of your student loans, because it’s likely you’ve misunderstood your obligation.

Federal education loans typically don’t allow you to go 10 years without payment, said financial expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors Network.

“With federal education loans, the economic hardship deferment has a three-year limit and most forbearances have a three-year limit, with one or two having a five-year limit,” Kantrowitz said.

“One could potentially consolidate the loans after getting a deferment and forbearances to reset the clock and thereby get a new set of deferments and forbearances on a new loan. But most of the forbearances aren’t mandatory, so one can’t count on stacking deferments and forbearances to get a 10-year suspension of the repayment obligation.”

Another possibility is that you’ve signed up for an income-based repayment plan that has reduced your payment to zero, but your eligibility is determined year by year. “2024 is a very specific date, so it seems unlikely that this is [income-based repayment],” Kantrowitz said.

“The most likely scenario is this borrower is misunderstanding the terms of his loan,” Kantrowitz said. “The next most likely scenario is that this borrower is not referring to a qualified education loan, but to a particular personal loan that he was able to obtain that few other borrowers would be able to obtain.”

Whatever the case may be, one of the best uses for a windfall is to boost your retirement savings. Even if you don’t have a workplace plan, you could set up an IRA or a Roth IRA as long as you have earned income.

Once you’re on track for retirement, your next goal would be to build your emergency fund, since you don’t have any high-rate debt. Once those goals are met, you can start paying down lower-rate debt (such as your student loans).

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Q&A: Home equity loans, mortgages and retirement

Apr 21, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I wish to add a little more information for the retired individual who had trouble getting approved for a home equity loan because he had no regular income (although he had plenty of assets). I’d suggest consulting a mortgage broker, not a bank. An independent broker is not captive to one set of policies. My broker suggested that I set up automatic withdrawals from my IRA to show that I had income in addition to Social Security. Once this was done and I met all the other credit requirements, I closed on a refinance in less than 30 days at a very good interest rate. Then, I discontinued my automatic withdrawals and went back to taking my funds as needed. I learned to use a qualified mortgage broker many years ago after a divorce and not having a job. I could not get a mortgage on my own, but my mortgage broker did and at very good terms. Each time I’ve used a broker, the process went smoothly and was stress free.

Answer: Many people don’t realize that lender policies differ quite a bit. In this case, mortgage buyers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have clarified that mortgage lenders can calculate a retiree’s income based on his or her assets, but not all lenders are willing to do the extra work these loans require.

People who are W-2 employees with solid income histories and great credit scores probably don’t need help finding a loan, because plenty of lenders will want to compete for their business. When your situation is outside the norm, however, a mortgage broker may be able to track down a lender when others balk. The National Assn. of Mortgage Brokers at http://www.namb.org offers referrals.

Categories : Q&A, Real Estate, Retirement
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