Q&A: Social Security calculators may overestimate your benefits

Dear Liz: All of the Social Security calculators that I have found assume that you will work until you start drawing Social Security benefits. However, I plan on retiring around 62 but not drawing my benefits until age 66 or later. Whenever I calculate my future benefits, the calculator assumes that I will continue to draw the same salary as I have today until I start benefits. I’m worried the calculators are overestimating my benefit.

Answer: As you probably know, Social Security uses your 35 highest-earning years to calculate your benefit. When you work longer than 35 years, you’re typically replacing your lower-earning years in your teens or 20s with higher earnings from your 50s and 60s.

Free Social Security calculators usually assume that pattern will continue. If you stop working or earn less, the calculators may overstate your benefits. To get a better estimate, you’ll need to shell out $40 to use MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, which allows you to customize your future earnings assumptions.

Q&A: Getting help with credit scores after identity theft

Dear Liz: Would you please help readers learn how to fix credit scores after identity theft? I have been a victim at least eight times in the past five years. I have filed three police reports regarding these matters and sent them along with other proof to the big three credit report agencies. Only one quickly answered and deleted the false entries.

Answer: You have a friend in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In the past, complaints about credit bureaus went into a black hole. The Federal Trade Commission collected them but warned consumers that it couldn’t expect any action on their individual cases. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, by contrast, forwards consumer complaints directly to the financial company and works to get problems solved. The bureau says 97% of complaints get a timely response.

Before you make your complaints, though, you should check your credit reports again. One bureau may have been faster in responding, but the other two may have since deleted the bogus accounts.

Q&A: What to consider when investing in target date retirement funds

Dear Liz: I have 100% of my 401(k) in a fund called “Target Retirement 2030.” This fund is made of several other funds, so does that qualify as “diversified”?

Answer: It does. Target date funds have become increasingly popular in 401(k) plans because they do the heavy lifting for investors. The funds select asset allocations and grow more conservative in their mix as the retirement date approaches.

Target date funds aren’t perfect, of course. Some are too expensive. The typical target date fund charges about 1%, but Vanguard and Fidelity charge as little as 0.15%.

Another issue is the “glide path” — how quickly the funds get more conservative. There’s no consensus about what the right glide path should be, and investment companies offer a lot of different mixes. Any given glide path may be too steep for some people and too shallow for others, depending on their circumstances. As an investor, you can compensate for that by choosing funds dated later or earlier than your targeted retirement date. If the 2030 fund gets too conservative too fast for your taste, for example, you could choose the 2040 fund instead.

Despite the downsides, you’re likely to be much better off in a target date fund than you are in some of the other options. Too often novice investors take too much or too little risk without realizing it. They may have all of their money in “safe” low-return options, which means they’re losing ground to inflation. Or they may have all their money in stocks, including their own company’s stock, and would be unprepared for a downturn wiping out a good chunk of their portfolio’s value.

Even those who know they should diversify often do it wrong by randomly distributing their contributions across their investment options. If you don’t know what you’re doing, or you simply prefer investing professionals to take charge, target date funds are a good way to go.

Q&A: Life insurance for people over 65

Dear Liz: Can you give us some direction on how to get good term life insurance when you’re over 65? We had 25-year term policies and the premiums skyrocketed, so we are looking. Will getting a group plan (such as the one offered by AARP) help me? I’ve had two heart valve surgeries and knee and hip surgeries but don’t drink or smoke. We are concerned that we may not have enough saved. My wife is still working, but I have not been able to find employment since I lost my job due to a downsizing.

Answer: The options available to you are likely to be limited or expensive or both.

The life insurance program offered through AARP provides up to $100,000 in term coverage that ends at age 80 or $50,000 in permanent life insurance that can extend through your life. There’s no medical exam but you do have to provide health information.

Life insurance with higher limits may be available but you’re not going to like the price, said Delia Fernandez, a fee-only Certified Financial Planner in Los Alamitos. Life insurance after 65 is usually expensive in any case, but those heart valve surgeries could make it much more so, depending on how long ago you had them, how successful they were and what medications you’re on.

Fernandez recommends consulting with an independent life insurance agent so you can get a better idea of what’s available and what it will cost. Once you have an idea of the premiums, you’ll have to weigh whether you’d be better off investing that money instead.

As a general rule, you don’t want to be worth more dead than alive — and not just because you don’t want your spouse contemplating ways to collect. More importantly, insurance coverage that exceeds your income-generating capacity signals that you may be spending too much for insurance and need to consider alternatives.

Q&A: 30-year versus 15-year mortgage

Dear Liz: Regarding the 57-year-old woman who wanted to refinance to a 15-year mortgage, why didn’t you present the benefits of keeping the low interest and low payments available on a 30-year loan and investing the difference? In 30 years the house would be paid off, but there would also be a pot of cash available if the difference were invested in a diverse portfolio. Too many people make the emotional decision that a paid-off house is necessary in retirement, then they end up having no cash when they might need it.

Answer: You’re right that when cash is tight, keeping a mortgage can make sense. Given her teacher’s pension, other savings and desire to pay off the home faster, the 15-year loan is a reasonable option. The faster payoff schedule also means that she can turn around and tap more of the equity in the unlikely event she needs a reverse mortgage later in life.

Q&A: ‘Stay at home’ credit card isn’t foolproof

Dear Liz: Regarding updating automatic payments when a credit card is replaced, I have found that using a separate credit card that never leaves home for automatic payments is a good idea. It’s very unlikely that this “stay at home” card would get hacked like a card I use in stores or ATMs. Does this seem like a good idea?

Answer: The security advantage of hiding a card at home is “pretty minimal, and approaching zero,” said Bob Sullivan, consumer security expert at BobSullivan.net and author of the book “Stop Getting Ripped Off.”

Any credit card can be hacked, as numerous database breaches have shown us. Once you use the card — with a merchant, at an ATM, on the Web or over the phone — you have no control of where its numbers are stored or how secure those databases are.

“The risk that it’s stolen from a database of cards outweighs the risk that a waiter or a compromised machine might steal it,” Sullivan said.

It may be more convenient to monitor automatic payments if they’re all on one card. But if the card is hacked, you’ll still have to reset all those payments.

Q&A: Financial help for seniors

Dear Liz: In your response to the person whose friend was erroneously declared deceased by the Social Security Administration, you suggest that the older person consider finding help in managing her finances. Please recommend checking the American Assn. of Daily Money Managers for such help. I have a certification from this professional organization and we help thousands of people in this predicament. You can find more information at www.aadmm.com.

Answer: Handling the details of daily finances can get challenging as we age. Many people have trusted family or friends who can help monitor their accounts, make sure bills are getting paid and keep an eye out for signs of financial abuse. For those who don’t, a daily money manager can be a godsend.

Q&A: Fixing your credit scores after a bankruptcy

Dear Liz: How do you repair credit scores after filing for bankruptcy? My husband and I are in this situation and are looking to reestablish credit and increase our credit scores. Also, how long do closed accounts appear on the credit report?

Answer: Filing for bankruptcy may have actually helped your scores. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found scores typically plunged in the 18 months before people filed for bankruptcy and rose steadily afterward. The average credit score before someone filed Chapter 7 was 538.2 on Equifax’s 280-to-850 scoring range. By the time filers’ cases were discharged, their average score was 620.3.

You can continue the upward trend with a credit-builder loan. These loans, typically offered by credit unions, put the money you borrow — usually $500 to $1,000 — into a certificate of deposit or savings account that you can claim once you’ve made 12 monthly payments. Your payments are reported to the credit bureaus, so you can build a decent credit history and your savings at the same time. If your local credit union doesn’t offer these loans, check to see if there’s a community development financial institution near you that does. You can find links to these at www.cdfifund.gov. Another option is Self Lender, an online company that makes credit-builder loans.

If you don’t already have a credit card, you can accelerate your scores’ rehabilitation with a secured credit card. You make a deposit, typically $200 to $2,000, with the issuing bank and get a credit line equal to that deposit. You should use the card lightly but regularly, being careful not to charge more than about 30% of its credit limit and paying the balance in full each month.

Another option is to wait until your scores are in the mid-600s and then apply for a regular credit card.

The bankruptcy will remain on your credit report for 10 years, but it will have less effect on your scores as time goes by as long as you continue to use credit responsibly.

Q&A: How to pursue money owed to heirs

Dear Liz: My stepmother passed away in December 2006, and her executor, who was her financial planner, distributed the estate according to her trust. A while after this, I discovered that she had a life insurance policy that hadn’t been addressed. The executor pursued this and found that $80,000 was due to the three primary heirs. However, he kept saying things were “in process.” At least a couple of years later, he said he had the check but didn’t know how to proceed because the estate was settled and also the insurance company had been taken over by another company. I finally saw the actual check (in April 2016) that he had. He claims he’s pursuing this but keeps going silent on us for extended periods of time. What can we do?

Answer: One possibility is that he showed you a phony check after pocketing the money. The other possibility is that he’s stunningly incompetent. It’s not clear which option is more disturbing.

Any estate planning attorney, or financial planner who has taken an estate-planning class, could tell him that life insurance proceeds typically pass outside the probate process, which means the estate wouldn’t necessarily have to be reopened. (Even if the estate did need to be reopened, every state has procedures for doing so.)

“I would think that the executor could merely endorse the check over to the three heirs,” Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell said. “Or he could open an estate bank account, deposit the check, write a check to the beneficiaries and then close the account.”

At this point, of course, the check may too stale to cash, but that’s not an insurmountable problem either. The current insurer would be able to reissue the check if the assets haven’t been turned over to the state or “escheated.” If the money was escheated, the executor can file a claim with the state to get it back.

Blaming his inaction on the insurance company takeover is absurd. All he needed to do was to call the new insurer, which has all the records of the old one.

The heirs have a number of options. They can petition the probate court to order the executor to distribute the life insurance proceeds. They can hire an attorney to help them do so or to contact the executor to demand he act, or both. They also can file a complaint with the company that employs him (assuming he’s not self-employed), with the regulator that oversees him and with the entity that issued his credentials, assuming he has any.

What they shouldn’t do is wait any longer. The executor’s inaction has already cost them years of lost potential investment returns.

Q&A: Getting out of a bad car loan can be tricky

Dear Liz: My car payment is $465 a month with a 22% interest rate. I need to get out of this car and into a lower car payment. My credit is poor. What is the best solution to go about this?

Answer: There are a number of solutions, most of which probably won’t work for you.

If you could do without a car for a while and owe less than this car is worth, you could sell it to pay off the loan. The fact you haven’t already done so indicates that you either need a car or have no equity, or both.

Fixing your credit could help you get a better deal, but that’s tough to do with an unaffordable car payment. You need to have enough free cash flow to put a down payment on a secured credit card or make monthly payments on a credit builder loan, which are two of the best ways to rehabilitate your credit. Your finances also have to be sound enough that you don’t miss payments on any credit obligation, including the car.

If you bought an overpriced jalopy from a “buy here, pay here lot,” or you were approved at a regular dealership but your rate got jacked up at the last minute, the dealer may have violated Truth in Lending laws that would allow you to get out of the deal. You’d probably need an attorney to help you pursue this option. You may luck out and find one that can help you at your local legal aid society. Otherwise, you could check with the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates to see if you can find affordable help.

Even if you were successful in getting out of this loan, of course, you still are likely to need a car and you’d still have bad credit, which means that you probably wouldn’t get a better deal on the next car than the bad one you have now.

If you can, the best option might be to get a second job or ask for overtime hours to pay this loan off as fast as possible. Then you could get a credit builder loan, which puts the money you borrow into a certificate of deposit you can claim after making 12 monthly payments. This small loan could be enough to significantly boost your credit scores and give you some cash to make a down payment on the next vehicle.