Career change in midlife requires caution

Dear Liz: I went through divorce three years ago (after 20 years being together). I’m now 41 and broken financially and emotionally. I’m wondering if I should sell my small place and move in with my mother or stay broke and tough it out so I can keep my own place. I work part time, which was fine when I was married. Should I return to college and start a new “second half of life career”? I love my job and I’m torn.

What do you recommend? I can’t survive on my income alone and pay my bills. It’s never ending and I’m stressed beyond measure!

Answer: Recovering from a big setback such as a divorce is tough. But continuing to struggle in a situation that doesn’t work makes little sense. You need enough income to cover your bills and save for the future.

If you sell your place and move in with your mother temporarily, you could continue working part time in the job you love while getting a degree that would qualify you for a better, full-time job. You’ll need to make this investment carefully, since you’ll have only a couple of decades for the money you spend (or borrow) to pay off. A two-year degree might make more sense than a four-year course of study, for example.

You’ll want to pick a well-paying job in an industry that’s growing, and you should limit the amount of student loan you take on to no more than you expect to make your first year out of school. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a list of the fastest-growing jobs, and their median salaries, at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm. Your local community college probably also has a career services center where you could talk to counselors about your options.

Split credit accounts when you split with a spouse

Dear Liz: I just finished paying off my last credit card and checked my credit report as I am now separated from my wife. I found we had one joint account that she had not been paying. There are two stretches of five months each of no payment.

I immediately called up the creditor and paid off the balance and the creditor closed the account due to the lack of payments. This one account killed my credit score. I also found two old accounts on my credit report that are both still active but I have not used them for years. Both accounts are in good standing.

I was thinking that if I started using the accounts again, paying them off each month, it would boost my credit score faster. I am looking to buy a house this summer and would have an easier time with a better score. Do you think using the old accounts would help improve my score faster or do you think my score would be better if I closed those accounts?

Answer: Closing accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. You should avoid closing any credit account when you’re trying to improve your credit rating.

Your experience shows why it’s so important to separate financial accounts when you’re separating from a spouse. Failure to pay any joint account can hurt both parties’ scores. This would be true even if you were divorced and had a divorce decree making her responsible for the debt. Your creditors don’t have to pay attention to such agreements.

Lightly using a few credit cards can help you recover from missteps like this one. “Lightly” means charging 10% or less of their credit limits, and you should pay the balances in full each month, since carrying credit card debt doesn’t help your scores. You shouldn’t expect your scores to bounce back overnight, however. If you had good scores before this incident, it may take you a few years to recover completely.

Will the new credit score change your life?

YCS4 coverIn case you missed them, here are some of the issues I’ve been writing about recently:

A much-heralded new version of the VantageScore could offer big benefits to consumers, but only if lenders actually start to use it. Read all about it in “New credit score could change lives.”

HSAs still aren’t a household acronym, but more companies are offering these health care accounts–and yours might be next. For the right people, HSAs can be a way to supercharge your retirement savings since they allow you to invest unused cash contributions in stocks. But you also run the risk of having the market wipe out your health care funds right when you need them. Read “Should you invest health care funds?” for more.

Divorce doesn’t necessarily separate your credit obligations, and a vengeful or oblivious ex can really mess up your credit. Learn what you should know before and after your split in “Don’t let your ex trash your credit.”

Are you giving identity thieves the clues they need to hack into your life? If you use social media, the answer may be yes. Read “Secrets you should yank off Facebook now.”

Soon-to-be ex wants cash-out refinance

Dear Liz: My soon-to-be ex wants to refinance our mortgage to pay for renovations so we can sell it for more money. He also wants to take out some cash to pay off unsecured loans. (I have $11,000 in credit card debt, and he has over $50,000.) The house recently appraised for $310,000 and we owe $158,000 on it. Is it wise to refinance in this circumstance?

Answer: A cash-out refinance would be a risky maneuver even if you intended to stay married. Renovations rarely boost a home sale price enough to cover their cost. Also, home equity that’s used to pay off credit card bills is often wasted, since the borrower never fixes the problem that led to overspending in the first place and simply runs up more debt. Since he would be getting the bulk of the benefit by having more of his debt paid off, you also would need to adjust the rest of your property settlement.

Often, the best and easiest solution in a divorce is to simply sell the house. You certainly wouldn’t want to remain on a mortgage with an ex after the divorce was final, if you could possibly avoid it. A good divorce attorney can give you advice about how to proceed from here.

How to get an ex’s Social Security information

Dear Liz: I am 63 and divorced after being married over 10 years. I was told by our local Social Security office that I need my ex’s Social Security number in order to find out whether spousal benefits based on his record would be more than benefits based on my own record. I have his full name and date of birth, but I would rather not ask him for his Social Security number. If I do really need that, do you have any suggestions? Would some other type of information suffice?

Answer: The information you received from your local Social Security office is incorrect. You do not need your ex’s Social Security number to apply for spousal benefits, said Jonathan Peterson, AARP executive communications director and author of “Social Security for Dummies.” The more identifying information you can provide, the better, but the Social Security Administration can track down his records without it.

That said, you might want to dig around in your old files to see whether you can find a joint tax return, which will certainly have his number, or an old health insurance card, which might.

Spousal benefits are available to divorced people as long as they were married at least 10 years, are 62 or older and are currently not married.

Helping an indigent parent navigate “the system”

Dear Liz: Our mother just turned 64, and our father is divorcing her. She hasn’t worked in years because of significant physical and mental health issues. My sister and I have been trying to figure out how she’s going to survive on $750 a month, which is the equivalent of half his Social Security. She has always had serious issues with money management, which is why there are no retirement savings or a house. We are now about to embark on the maze of social service benefits that an older woman below the poverty line can receive, partly so we can decide whether she’s better off staying put where she is in Arkansas, moving to my sister’s in Texas, moving to be near me in Maryland, or moving to her childhood home of Chicago, where most of her friends are. For a lot of complicated reasons (mostly related to the mental health issues), we are trying to avoid having her live with either of us full time, and she expresses no desire to do so. So we have to figure out the ins and outs of Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized senior housing and anything else in four different states and then try to explain it to her. If you have any hints about helping an indigent and somewhat incapacitated mother access services, we would love to hear them. We feel a little overwhelmed at the moment and aren’t even sure whom to call in each place.

Answer: It’s understandable that you feel overwhelmed. You have a huge task in front of you.

You can start with the Eldercare Locator, a free service offered by the U.S. Administration on Aging that can connect you to services for older adults and their families. You’ll find it at http://www.eldercare.gov, or you can call (800) 677-1116.

Another resource you might want to consider is a geriatric care manager. These are professionals who help family members care for elderly relatives. The care manager can evaluate your mom, review her options and make recommendations. Their services aren’t cheap, but they can be especially helpful in managing a long-distance situation. You can find referrals at the National Assn. of Geriatric Care Managers’ site, http://www.caregiver.org. And speaking of distance: It might be easier to help your mom if she lives closer to one of you, or to a trustworthy friend who can check in on her and let you know how things are going.

You also should check with an Arkansas family law attorney, since your mother may be eligible for some kind of spousal support and possibly a property division that could help her financially.

Finally, if your father dies before your mother, she still will be eligible for survivor benefits that could bump her Social Security check up to 100% of what your father was receiving. Many people don’t realize that ex-spouses can qualify for survivors’ benefits as long as the marriage lasted 10 years and the person applying for benefits didn’t remarry until after age 60.