Q&A: How to find your way out of difficult financial circumstances

Dear Liz: I desperately need your help! My husband, who is 91, is in the early stages of dementia. I just turned 88 and for the first time am responsible for making all the financial decisions.

We are deeply in debt and I don’t know the best way to proceed. We owe more than $40,000 on credit cards, nearly $50,000 on a home equity loan, $20,000 on solar panels and $3,500 for a timeshare.

I am thinking of getting a low-interest mortgage on our home to pay off all these debts. We have no savings left. I just don’t know if this is a good idea or who to go to for answers.

Answer: If you have a younger family member or friend you trust, please consider involving this person in your search for answers. The possible solutions you need to consider are complex and would be daunting even for someone with a lot of experience in making financial decisions.

Getting a mortgage could be one solution, assuming you can get approved and afford the payments. Start by consulting a mortgage loan officer at your bank to see if this is an option.

Another possibility is a reverse mortgage, if you have sufficient home equity. The reverse mortgage could allow you to pay off some or all of your debts without having to make monthly payments. If you have substantial equity, you also may be able to supplement your income.

The reverse mortgage would have to be paid when you sold the home, died or moved out. A housing counselor, available from many National Foundation for Credit Counseling agencies, can discuss those with you. You can get referrals at www.nfcc.org.

Bankruptcy is yet another option to consider.

If your income is below the median for your area, you may be able to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation to legally rid yourself of the credit card debt and timeshare. You also may be able to erase the solar panel loan, if it’s unsecured. If you have a lot of equity in your home, though, you could be forced to sell the house to pay your creditors, making Chapter 7 a bad option.

The other type of bankruptcy, Chapter 13, allows you to keep more property but requires a repayment plan that typically lasts for five years.

If you don’t have a lot of equity, on the other hand, and your income is protected from creditors, you may be “judgment proof.” That means if you stop paying your unsecured debts, your creditors could sue you but be unable to collect. An experienced bankruptcy attorney can assess your situation and let you know your options.

Referrals are available from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, www.nacba.org.

If you don’t have a trusted person to help you sort through your options, or even if you do, consider hiring a fee-only planner who charges by the hour. An experienced planner who agrees to be a fiduciary — which means he or she puts your best interests first — can help ease your mind that you’re making the right choice.

You can get referrals from the Garrett Planning Network, www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How ‘free’ credit cards can cost you. Also in the news: Plan, give and spend smart to avoid holiday debt, answers to 5 trick questions from car dealers, and 7 tips on becoming a ‘financial’ caregiver.

How ‘Free’ Credit Cards Can Cost You
Reading the fine print.

Plan, Give and Spend Smart to Avoid Holiday Debt
Giving wisely.

Answers to 5 Trick Questions From Car Dealers
Beat them at their own game.

Seven tips on becoming a ‘financial’ caregiver
Managing multiple households.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to rebound from natural disaster debt. Also in the news: Quitting your job without another lined up, a 5-step recipe for financial success, and how to get in the holiday spirit without going into debt.

How to Rebound From Natural Disaster Debt
Slow and steady recovery.

Ask Brianna: Should I Quit My Job Without Another Lined Up?
Escaping a job you hate.

Your 5-step recipe for financial success
Five simple steps.

How to get in the holiday spirit without going into debt
A budget is essential.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: New payday loan rule protects borrowers from sinking into debt. Also in the news: Sailing into Columbus Day sales, how to make money on Amazon, and why you’re losing money if cash is your only savings strategy.

New Payday Loan Rule Protects Borrowers From Sinking Into Debt
Protecting the consumer.

Should You Sail Into Columbus Day Sales?
What to purchase this weekend.

How to Make Money on Amazon
So that you can turn around and then spend it on Amazon.

If Cash Is Your Only Savings Strategy, You’re Losing Money
A piggy bank doesn’t draw interest.

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.

Are you a yo-yo debtor? Ways to break that cycle

Americans’ debt loads, like our waistlines, tend to expand as we approach middle age and then gradually diminish as we get older.

Some people, though, are yo-yo debtors, fighting an ongoing up-and-down battle with debt. They pay it off, or come close, only to find themselves battling bills once again. But there are ways to break that cycle.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how to break the cycle of yo-yo debt.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Want to graduate with minimal debt? Choose the right college. Also in the news: How to budget, save, and even win money with today’s prepaid debit cards, 5 key facts about earthquakes and insurance, and hackers are stealing home buyers’ down payments.

Want to Graduate With Minimal Debt? Choose the Right College
Comparison shopping.

Budget, Save, Even Win Money With Today’s Prepaid Debit Cards
Getting your spending in order.

5 Key Facts About Earthquakes and Insurance
Important information.

Hackers stealing home buyers’ down payments
Targeting hopes and dreams.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: You could be overspending with credit cards. Yes, you. Also in the news: Your excuses for not contributing to a 401(k) are dwindling, which is the best way for you to zap your debt, and how millennials can prepare for the next financial crisis.

You Could Be Overspending With Credit Cards. Yes, You.
Keeping your spending in check.

Your Excuses for Not Contributing to a 401(k) Are Dwindling
No more excuses.

Different Ways to Zap Your Debt: Which Is for You?
Finding the best way to conquer your debt.

How millennials can prepare for the next financial crisis
Preparing for the inevitable.

Q&A: Sinking under a heavy debt load? There’s help

Dear Liz: I am trying to get my finances in order and, like many, I am struggling. The majority of my debt comes from student loans, but I also have unsecured debt that is weighing me down. I work for a nonprofit and know I need to contact my lenders to try to enroll in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but my debt has me completely frozen. Every few months I try to do something and then I end up back where I am now, feeling overwhelmed.

Answer: You’re not alone. Credit counselors often deal with people who are so paralyzed by debt problems they can’t even open their bills. These people bring in sacks of unopened mail to their first appointments with the counselors.

If you haven’t been able to deal with your debt alone, then by all means, get help. A nonprofit credit counselor is an option; you can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. A financial planner, a financial coach or even a money-savvy friend also can help you.

If you can force yourself to simply call your student loan servicers — the companies that process the payments on your education debt — you can get the ball rolling. These companies can determine if you’re eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and help you start on the paperwork.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness can erase the balance of your federal student loans after 10 years of payments if you work in the public sector. To get the maximum benefit, you would need to sign up for an income-based repayment plan and you may need to consolidate your loans. All this involves effort, but if you’re planning to stay in public service, it can be worthwhile.

The Trump administration has proposed ending the forgiveness program for future borrowers. Even if Congress enacts such a change, it should not affect those who have already taken out loans. But you’d still be wise to enroll as soon as possible.

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.