Q&A: Your debt lives even after you die

Dear Liz: I live in a senior building and we had a discussion about our debt after we pass away. I said, “If we have any money in our estate, that will pay it off.” One woman who lives here claims that all you have to do is send in a copy of a death certificate and that will get rid of any debt. Hope you can settle this for us.

Answer: Debt doesn’t just disappear when someone dies. Whether and what creditors get paid, though, depends on a lot of factors.

After someone dies, the executor of the estate (or the personal representative, if the deceased had a living trust) is supposed to notify creditors of the death. The first bills to be paid usually are the costs of administering the estate, followed by secured debt such as mortgages, liens and so on, then the funeral and burial expenses, says Los Angeles estate planning attorney Andrew Steenbock. Next in line typically are medical bills from the final illness and the dead person’s last tax bill. Then other creditors are paid from what’s left, if anything. Only after creditors are paid can any remaining assets be distributed according to the will, trust or state law if there are no estate planning documents. If the estate is insolvent — with more debt than assets to pay those debts — then heirs typically get nothing and the creditors are paid a portionate amount of whatever assets are available.

Things can get more complicated if there is a surviving spouse or co-signer, since debt that’s jointly owed would become the survivor’s problem.

Ignoring these rules can have serious repercussions for the executor, who can become personally liable for mistakes made in settling an estate. If your neighbor’s executor ignores state law and distributes assets to heirs before paying off creditors, for example, the creditors could sue the executor. That’s a pretty powerful incentive for learning and obeying those rules.

Q&A: Debt has a habit of hanging around

Dear Liz: Last year my dad had an account he couldn’t pay and it is showing up on his credit report as a closed, charged-off account. As expected, the lender sold it to another company. The new company now also has it listed as an open account in collection on his credit report. How can the same account be listed twice? I thought the second company couldn’t report it.

Answer: That’s not correct. Once the debt was charged off and turned over to collections, it could be reported again as a collection account. If the original account still shows a balance owed or more than one collection shows up for the same debt, however, your dad should definitely dispute it and file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Q&A: How long will a tax lien linger on a credit report?

Dear Liz: You wrote an article about how the credit bureaus are removing civil judgments and tax liens from people’s credit reports. I’ve been denied credit due to a few tax liens. Creditors won’t negotiate, even though the IRS has already deemed me unable to pay due to my disability. (I’m receiving Social Security disability income.) My question now is, how can I be sure it is being removed? Do I need to call the bureaus? Order another credit report?

Answer: Your unpaid tax liens may disappear, or they may not.

Starting in July, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion began removing liens and judgments when those records lack enough personally identifying information to ensure that the negative marks wind up on the right people’s reports. Another new requirement is that the records be properly updated, so that accounts that have been paid or resolved aren’t still showing as unpaid.

The error rate for these records was high, leading to many complaints, disputes and lawsuits. The bureaus expect to purge virtually all civil judgments but only about half of the tax liens.

If your liens aren’t purged and you can’t pay them, you may have to wait a while for them to fall off your credit reports. Paid liens are subject to the seven-year limit on how long most negative items can appear on credit reports. Unpaid liens can technically remain indefinitely, although the bureaus typically remove them after 10 years.

Q&A: An Internet search isn’t the best way to find a credit counselor

Dear Liz: You’ve mentioned finding a nonprofit credit counselor and I was wondering the best way to go about that without feeling like I’ve been scammed. I’m wise enough (in my later years) to know that “nonprofit” does not mean free or even cheap services, so I didn’t want to just search for “nonprofit credit counseling, McKinney Texas.” Suggestions? Or should I do just that?

Answer: You can find a nonprofit credit counseling organization in your area using the National Foundation for Credit Counseling site at www.nfcc.org. NFCC is the oldest and largest credit counseling organization. Member organizations provide a variety of free and low-cost services. Those include financial education, credit report reviews and counseling about credit and debt, bankruptcy, foreclosure prevention, housing and reverse mortgages. If you’re struggling with credit card debt, these agencies provide debt management plans that can allow you to pay off your accounts at lower interest rates.

If you think you may need a debt management plan, you may also want to consult with a bankruptcy attorney. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org. Credit counselors — and their clients — are sometimes too optimistic about people’s ability to pay off debt, so you should understand the advantages and disadvantages of bankruptcy before you commit.

Q&A: You don’t need to carry debt in order to have good credit

Dear Liz: You should tell people that they can help their credit score more by not paying their credit card bills in full each month. By not paying in full, but paying the minimum or more each month, it shows the card issuer that you can handle credit wisely and encourages them to raise the limit. This pushes the utilization down.

Answer: There’s nothing wise about carrying credit card debt. The idea that you need to carry a balance to have good scores is a stupid, expensive myth that needs to die.

People who spread this myth don’t understand how balances are reported to the credit bureaus and subsequently used in credit scores. Credit card issuers typically don’t report your balance on the day after you pay your bill. They may report your last statement balance, or the balance on a certain day each month. That’s the balance that credit score formulas have long used to calculate your scores. The scoring formulas traditionally couldn’t see whether or not you carried a balance from month to month, so there was no reason to do so and incur expensive interest.

Recent credit reporting changes will make carrying a balance an even worse idea. Some card issuers have started reporting payment patterns — essentially telling the bureaus which people consistently pay their balances in full and which don’t. That’s because research has shown that people who pay off their credit card bills are significantly less likely to default than those who carry a balance. Mortgage lenders already are considering this information when making loans, even though it’s not something that factors into the credit scores most of them currently use.

Although there’s no advantage to carrying a balance, there is a huge advantage to lightly but regularly using the credit cards you have. That’s what actually shows scoring formulas and lenders that you can responsibly manage credit.

Q&A: What to do about heavy credit card debt

Dear Liz: I have a lot of credit card debt and am just able to make minimum payments. I feel like after doing this for four years now that I am not getting ahead. I will be 61 this summer and don’t have much saved for retirement. My rent keeps going up along with other expenses. I have an 11-year-old car that is in need of maintenance but don’t have the funds to do it. My question is, what would happen if I walk away from the credit card debt? Will I be facing garnishment?

Answer: Yes, you could be sued and face wage garnishment if you simply stopped paying your debts.

You could consider a debt management plan offered through a credit counselor, which could lower the interest rates you pay. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. But you’d be making payments for the next five years or so, when you could be putting that cash toward your retirement.

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy, by contrast, would take a few months and legally erase your credit card debt to give you a fresh start. Bankruptcy is often the best of bad options when you can’t make progress on your debts. Consider meeting with both a credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney so you understand all your options.

Q&A: Getting cash to pay medical bills

Dear Liz: I am 63 and retired from my full-time job last year since I have bad health. I work part time now and have tons of medical bills because of stage one cancer. I need additional cash. Is there some way I can get an advance using my pension check as collateral? In addition, is there any way to get an advance from those insurance people who pay people who may die in less than five years? I can’t say when I’m going to kick the bucket but any suggestions you may have that will allow me to get some immediate financial assistance will be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Let’s reinforce what you just said: You don’t know when you’re going to die. A stage one cancer diagnosis is far from an immediate death sentence. You could live for decades, so the mistakes you make now could haunt you for a long time.

Yes, there are some companies that will give you a lump sum in exchange for the next five to 10 years of your pension payments. You should avoid them like the plague. The effective interest rates they charge can be astronomical and you’ll probably be much worse off. If you’re having a hard time making ends meet now, losing a source of income won’t help.

Even if you were going to die soon, no one would hand you money just because of that fact. Those “insurance people” are actually investors who buy cash-value life insurance policies, often from the terminally ill. If you had such a policy, you might be able to sell it for an amount somewhere between the surrender value (what you’d get from the insurer by cashing it in now) and the face value (the dollar amount for which you’re insured). These transactions are called life insurance settlements. If you did have such a policy, though, you probably would be better off just borrowing the amount you need from its cash value.

Consider consulting an experienced bankruptcy attorney if you have more bills than you can pay. Medical bills, along with credit card balances and other consumer debt, can be erased in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Once the debt is gone, you can start rebuilding your finances for what may be a longer life than you expect.

Q&A: What happens to debts after death?

Dear Liz: When a person passes away, what happens to their debt obligations? A brother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and my husband is listed as the beneficiary. His residence is paid off but has monthly homeowners association fees and property taxes that we would expect to pay. However, he has had low income for years, so he also has substantial credit-card debt, a line of credit with a large outstanding balance and some other debts. He refuses to share pertinent details (such as account numbers) so that we can address these issues when he dies. It’s clear that he will not be able to address them. Any advice?

Answer: Your brother-in-law’s creditors typically will file claims against his estate after he dies. Those bills are paid before what’s left, if anything, can be distributed to his heirs. If his home equity and other assets aren’t sufficient to pay his debts, however, those heirs won’t be on the hook. The creditors will take what they can get and write off the unpaid balance.

You say your husband is “listed” as the beneficiary, but you don’t say where. If his brother doesn’t have a will or living trust, he should be encouraged to visit an estate-planning attorney as soon as possible. He should also have powers of attorney drafted that name the people he wants to make healthcare and financial decisions for him should he become incapacitated.

In the meantime, stop bugging the poor man for his account numbers. There’s no need for you to have that information while he’s still alive and able to handle his own affairs.

Q&A: Cleaning up your credit score

Dear Liz: I have several small dings on my credit. I’m now in the position to pay them off, but how do I know my credit will be improved? Should I call the companies and ask if they will remove it if I pay in full and get it in writing?

Answer: Paying off collections won’t help your credit scores, and creditors rarely agree to delete collection accounts in exchange for payment. You can always ask, but don’t count on this as a way to improve your credit. The best way to recover from “small dings” is to use credit responsibly in the future. That means paying bills on time and using less than 30% of your available credit on your cards. You don’t need to carry balances to improve your credit.

Q&A: When a new spouse brings surprise debt to the marriage

Dear Liz: I’m 58 and got married for the first time almost two years ago. I discovered my wife has several incredibly large outstanding student loans, including a parent Plus loan for her son’s education that she thought was in deferment and that has nearly doubled to well over $100,000. In addition, my wife has her own student loans, which total over $40,000 and have rates from 3% to nearly 7%. Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed to discover this debt and wish she had shared it with me earlier.

We have looked into consolidating the loans into the U.S. Department of Education’s student debt relief program, which creates a monthly payment program based on income and forgives the remaining balance after 25 years. I’m uncomfortable with this plan. The long duration of monthly payments would be a big struggle and, after 25 years, we would have paid nearly $40,000 over the current principal even with the outstanding balance being forgiven.

I’m contemplating liquidating all my non-retirement accounts and half of our savings to pay off the larger parent PLUS loan.This would leave us with very little liquid reserve but still some substantial retirement accounts. Our combined income is around $75,000. We would then consolidate my wife’s lower-rate debt and try to take a personal loan out to pay off the higher rate loans if we can secure a lower rate. Do you have any other suggestions as to my options?

Answer: Your situation is a perfect example of why couples should review each other’s credit reports before marriage. At the very least, you could have figured out a plan to deal with the debt at least two years earlier and saved the interest that’s accrued since then.

As you probably know, your wife is stuck with this debt. The government can pursue her to her grave because there’s no statute of limitations on federal student loan debt collections. The government also can take part of her Social Security retirement or disability checks, something collectors of other kinds of debt can’t do. Even bankruptcy isn’t a viable option for most borrowers because student loan debt is extremely hard to get erased.

It’s understandable that you don’t want to be making student loan payments into your 80s, but paying the loans off much faster probably isn’t a reasonable option, given your income. So liquidating other assets to pay off the parent loan may be the best option. The wisdom of this approach, however, depends on how well you’ve saved for retirement, your job security and how much of an emergency fund would remain. If you lost your job after paying off the parent loan, you couldn’t get that money back to pay your expenses. By contrast, you could have your payment lowered under the Department of Education’s plan if you lost a source of income.

Consolidating your wife’s debt inside the federal student loan program would allow her to retain some important consumer protections that aren’t available with other debt, such as the ability to defer payments for up to three years if she faces an economic setback. If you do refinance your wife’s debt with private lenders to lower the rate, consider doing so with a private student loan rather than a personal loan if you want to retain the ability to write off the interest.

This is a complex decision with a lot of moving parts, so you’d be smart to discuss your plan with a fee-only financial planner before deciding what to do.