Dear Liz: I am confused about your recent article about a person who did a short sale and questioned its effect on her credit. You said that if she started with a score of 680, it would take about three years for her FICO numbers to return to normal. You then said, “If your scores were high, say 780, it would take about seven years to restore them to their old peaks.” This doesn’t make sense to me. Why would it take longer to recover if you started with better credit?
Answer: Think of credit scores as a mountain that gets steeper the higher you climb. Not only does it take longer to achieve the lofty peaks, but if you tumble down the mountain, it will take you longer to return to those peaks than to achieve some intermediate stage.
The FICO formula is designed to reflect your likelihood of default. If you’ve recently missed a payment, had a bill go to collections or had a foreclosure or short sale, the formula assumes you’re much more likely to default on another bill than someone who doesn’t have those black marks on his or her record, and your scores fall to reflect that higher risk of default. As time passes and you handle credit responsibly, your scores will begin to slowly rise, but it will take more time to regain your peak scores if they were high.
Something else to understand is that the penalty for most negative credit events is greater for people with high scores than those with lower scores. Missing a single payment can knock up to 110 points off a 780 score but might deduct just 60 points from a 680 score. That’s because a higher risk of default is already “baked in” to the lower score. The higher score presumes you’re less likely to default. If you do miss a payment, the formula is set up to punish you more. In most cases, though, you won’t “fall down the mountain” as far as someone who started with a lower score. After the missed payment, the 780 score could be 670, while the 680 score could be 620.
There’s a window of opportunity right now to reduce future estate taxes by moving money out of large estates. People who don’t take action could be missing a chance to save their heirs a bundle.
Here’s the deal: Currently, the estate tax exemption limit and the gift tax exemption limit are both $5.12 million. Both are scheduled to revert to $1 million after Dec. 31.
What that means is that wealthy people can give over $5 million away (over $10 million for a married couple) without owing any gift tax on that transfer. Such gifts can reduce the size of the wealthy person’s estate, so that the estate tax bill will be lower when he or she dies.
The money can be given away directly, or put into certain kinds of trusts. Any good estate planning attorney can outline the possibilities. If you’re planning to pass money to your kids, or a business, or real estate, it’s worth reviewing these.
Interestingly, a recent survey from U.S. Trust found two-thirds of the wealthy folks it polled hadn’t taken advantage of this opportunity and didn’t plan to do so. The survey respondents all had a minimum of $3 million in investable assets, with 31% having $5 million to $10 million and 32% having more than $10 million.
Now, it’s possible that Congress with pass some kind of patch or extension of the current exemption limits. It hasn’t been able to agree on much late, of course, but that can always change.
Still, if you’re concerned about estate taxes, it would make sense to meet with both a fee-only financial planner (to see if you can afford to give money away) and an estate planning attorney to see if it makes sense to pass some money along to your heirs now, rather than waiting until death.
Dear Liz: We married late in life and each of us brought separate property to the marriage. One spouse has four children and the other none. We have a marital trust that allows for the spouse upon death to receive the entire estate. Upon the death of both spouses, how would you draft a provision that would allow the remainder of one spouse’s separate property to be allocated to her children and the other spouse’s separate property to be donated to a charitable foundation?
Answer: Instead of allowing each other to inherit everything outright, you might want to consider a bypass trust. These trusts allow the surviving spouse to benefit from the assets during his or her lifetime. Upon the surviving spouse’s death, the assets are bequeathed to the ultimate beneficiaries. The survivor can’t alter the trust to change or prevent that.
Bypass trusts can create family tension, however. If the mother in your example were the first to die, her children would have to wait for “their money” until her spouse died. In the case of much younger or unusually healthy spouses, that can be a long wait, with the kids worrying that the surviving spouse will spend most or all of the money in the meantime.
If that could be an issue in your case, you might consider buying life insurance on the mother, Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell said.
“Some people fund for the children with life insurance on that parent’s life, so that the children don’t have to wait for the second death,” Mitchell said, “and to minimize tension with the children with the surviving spouse.”
You also should consider having a meeting with the children once you’ve decided how to handle this, Mitchell said.
“It is often better for them to understand what is happening and let them ask questions to their parent, before they discover the facts after the funeral,” he said. “At that point, someone is already dead and the survivor’s answers are suspect.”
If your estate is greater than estate tax exemption limits — currently $5.12 million, but scheduled to drop to $1 million in 2013 — you may want to take additional steps to reduce the future tax bite. One option is known as a qualified terminable interest property or QTIP trust. Your estate planning attorney can provide you with details. And yes, you should have an attorney, particularly if you have a large estate or someone may contest the will.
“Anyone can download documents off the Internet or go to a forms service or mill, but to do it right and to minimize problems later, you have to understand each individual’s situation and craft a plan that works best for them,” Burton said. “It’s like snowflakes — estate plans may look similar, but no two should be identical.”
That’s the mantra I’ve chanted in columns, speeches and interviews over the years. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal shows a lot of upper middle income parents aren’t listening, gauging by the amount of student loan debt they’re taking on. What the Journal found:
- Among households with annual incomes of $94,535 to $205,335 (80th to 95th percentile of all households), 25.6% had student-loan debt in 2010, compared to 19.5% in 2007. Among all households, 19.1% had education debt in 2010 compared to 15.2% three years earlier.
- The amount borrowed by upper middle income households rose to $32,869 from $26,639, after adjusting for inflation.
- Fat student loan bills are no longer an anomaly. More than three million households have a student loan balance of $50,000 or more. That compares to about 794,000 in 2001 and less than than 300,000 in 1989, after adjusting for inflation.
The Journal threw in another statistic: More than one in three households with incomes of $95,000 to $125,000 who had a child entering college in 2011 didn’t save or invest for that child’s education, according to a survey by Human Capital Research.
Here’s the deal: A child’s financial aid package will be based in large part on what the parents earn. If they have a six-figure income, or close to it, the kid won’t get much help. Colleges expect that if you have that much income, you should have been saving some of it for education–whether or not you actually did.
Even families with lesser means could find they’re getting a lot less help than they expected, with much of it coming in the form of loans rather than grants.
Either way, that means the parents, the kid or both could be taking on a lot of debt.
The Journal suggested that this burgeoning debt may lead more families to more carefully consider cost and value when considering colleges, something that “could make it difficult for all but the most selective schools to keep pushing through large tuition increases.”
We’ll see about that. In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to have a decent income, consider putting at least some of it aside for your kids’ educations. Do it even if you won’t be able to pay for everything, or you want your kid to be mostly responsible for the cost. Every dollar you save is a dollar your child–or you–won’t have to borrow later.
Please welcome Jeff Yeager, one of my favorite cheapskates and an all-around good guy. I asked him to write the very first guest post for AskLizWeston.com based on advice from his latest book, “Don’t Throw That Away!” The book, and this post, focus on the middle part of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra, with creative ways to get more mileage from what you already have. Here’s what Jeff has to say:
By getting a little creative and reusing would-be throwaway items, you’ll not only help save the Earth’s resources and live lighter on the planet, but you can also save some money at the same time. Here are a few examples of creative repurposing:
Dear Liz: Is it possible for me to buy a home without having my wife on the mortgage? She lost her business because of the recession. I do not want to deal with her creditors.
Answer: You can apply for a mortgage based solely on your own income, credit scores and debt-to-income ratio, if those are sufficient to buy the house you want. Your wife’s income and credit does not have to be considered.
If you can’t swing the purchase without her income, though, you’ll both need to spend some time improving her credit scores. That might include adding her as an authorized user to your credit cards. Another option is to negotiate settlements with her creditors in return for their deleting the collection accounts from her credit reports. You’d want to be cautious in these negotiations, especially if the statute of limitations on the debts hasn’t expired and your wife could be sued. Consider visiting DebtCollectionAnswers.com for help in negotiating with creditors.
Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from a business owner who defaulted on some credit card accounts and wanted to know how to pay these old debts. How is it that this person has not been subjected to numerous judgments on the cards in question? In fact, how could he or she have proceeded in business without being subjected to garnishment of accounts?
Answer: To get a judgment and a garnishment, the credit card company or a subsequent collector typically must sue the borrower in court. Different collectors have different policies about when to file such lawsuits. Sometimes they decide it’s not worth the hassle given the slim chances of collecting. However, many collectors also regularly check’ credit reports to see if a debtor’s financial circumstances seem to be improving. If they see signs of such improvement, they may renew collection attempts, including lawsuits.