Q&A: When the path to the altar is littered with old debts

Dear Liz: My fiancee has incurred a lot of medical debt during the course of our relationship. She works 13- to 14-hour days at two jobs so she can start saving for the wedding and our shared goals, which include buying her a car, sending me to grad school without incurring more student debt, creating a real emergency fund for us, and moving out of my apartment into a new one.

She thinks her credit is horrible (though she has never checked it) and she knows with the medical bills, it is getting worse. She doesn’t think she can move in because she can’t buy a car.

What should I do? Should I help her with her debt so we can actually plan for the wedding scheduled next July? Or should I let her deal with it herself?

My biggest concern in all of this is that I have significantly better finances. I worked hard in college and have a full-time job that pays a living wage. I’ve been in my own apartment for two years.

Sometimes I feel resentful of the fact that she cannot contribute to our household like I can, and I worry that I will have to shoulder our shared goals. I am particularly worried I will have to pay for the wedding, which I am finding more and more ridiculously expensive every day (we’re only spending $5,600), while not being able to save for grad school.

I really am not sure how to give up my frustration and face reality, and our reality is that medical debt is holding up our plans.

Answer: It’s understandable that you’re frustrated. But please don’t take it out on your fiancee, who sounds like a hard-working person who had the bad luck of getting sick.

Working 13-hour days isn’t sustainable, particularly for someone with health issues. She may already have more medical debt than she can reasonably repay, and continuing to struggle with these bills may make achieving other goals impossible.

Encourage her to make an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. Bankruptcy may not be the right choice for her, but the attorney should be able to assess her situation and discuss her options.

Her debt may be manageable with some help from you. In that case, you two need to discuss how to handle this and your finances in general.

Don’t listen to people — or your own preconceptions — telling you there’s only one way couples should handle money. Some married couples keep their finances entirely separate. Some combine everything — all assets and income are joint, and so are all debts. Most take a middle path, combining some accounts and obligations while keeping others separate.

Finances can also evolve. You may be able to contribute more now, but your fiancee may become the primary breadwinner when you start graduate school. When that happens, would you expect her to help you pay the student loan debt you acquired before marriage, or will that be your obligation?

What’s most important is that you figure out how to work as a team, without resentment and unspoken expectations. It may help to schedule a visit with a fee-only financial planner to discuss your shared goals and how you’ll fund them. You can get referrals to fee-only advisors who charge by the hour at the Garrett Planning Network, www.garrettplanningnetwork.com, and to those who charge monthly fees at the XY Planning Network, www.xyplanningnetwork.com.

Q&A: Waiting for Social Security pays off

Dear Liz: My husband (who will retire in January) just turned 67, but still wants to wait to collect Social Security until he turns 70 to maximize his benefit.

Should he apply for Social Security now, and immediately suspend benefits? Or, should he simply wait until he turns 70 years old to apply? Is there a difference?

Answer: There’s no need for your husband to file for benefits now. He will accrue delayed retirement credits for each month he delays filing, and those credits will add 8% a year to his benefit. Not only will that result in a larger check for him, but that could mean a larger survivor’s check for you should you outlive him.

Q&A: Death means capital gains take a holiday for heirs selling a house

Dear Liz: I am in my mid-80s and in declining health. I want to advise my beneficiaries about possible taxation on the sale of my home after I expire. I bought the place in 1995 for $152,000. It now has a market value of about $400,000. The issue is whether that gain is taxable upon the sale after my death. I also have a $57,000 long-term capital loss carry-forward in my income taxes, which is being written off at a rate of $3,000 each year.

Answer: The gain in your home’s value won’t be taxable at your death. Instead, the home will get what’s known as a “step up in basis.” That means its new value for tax purposes will be its market value when you die. So if it’s worth $400,000 when you die and your heirs sell it for $400,000, no capital gains taxes will be owed on the sale.

The news isn’t so good for your capital loss, however. Any unused carryover expires at your death and can’t be transferred to your estate.

As you know, capital losses — losses on investments or assets that you sell — can be used to offset capital gains and reduce your tax bill. If your losses exceed your gains, you can offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income each year. Any capital loss remaining after that can be used the next year in the same way: first to offset capital gains, then to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income.

Often when taxpayers have such a loss, they’re encouraged to sell investments that have increased in value to help use up the loss faster, but you should talk to your tax pro and estate planning attorney to see if that makes sense in your case.

Q&A: Auto dealers must abide by credit check limits

Dear Liz: I have loans and have paid my credit cards in full for over 30 years. My FICO score is 829. I don’t really care as I don’t plan to borrow in the future. I check my score and reports occasionally to check for a possible error or scam. Other than this, is there any reason at all that I should care?

I did notice a car dealership checked my score when recently I submitted a down payment check to order a car for which I would pay in full. I don’t believe they would refuse to sell me the car for cash if I had a lousy credit score, so they probably wanted some measure of reassurance about whether I have a lifestyle that could afford completing the deal.

Answer: You have many FICO scores, not just one, but if any one of them is 829, then the rest of them are probably pretty good, too.

Credit scores are used for more than borrowing decisions. In most states (but not California), insurance companies can use credit information to set premiums. Cellphone companies, landlords and utilities use them as well.

Car dealerships, however, aren’t supposed to pull your credit scores without your permission. That’s a violation of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.

If the dealership got your permission by telling you a credit check was necessary for a down payment (or an all-cash deal, for that matter), then it misled you.

To prevent money laundering, dealerships are required to ask for identification and a Social Security or Tax ID number from buyers who are purchasing a car for more than $10,000 in cash. That’s it.

But some dealers pretend the anti-terrorism Patriot Act requires them to check your credit when you pay cash, which is nonsense. Typically, dealerships run credit checks to see if they can make an extra buck by financing the deal. Those checks are coded as hard inquiries that can damage people’s credit scores. (That’s in contrast to what happens when you check your own credit, which creates “soft” inquiries that don’t affect scores.)

Your scores are high, so the credit check probably didn’t ding them much. But the dealership was accessing information about you that it didn’t need to have. Plus, the more outfits that have your credit information, the greater your risk of identity theft.

If you didn’t give your OK, you could file a Fair Credit Reporting Act lawsuit to collect up to $1,000 from the dealership. If you did give your permission, strongly consider withholding it the next time if you’re not interested in financing your vehicle.

Q&A: How to get results when you complain to your mortgage company

Dear Liz: Last year my mortgage was sold to another company. I didn’t know that I had a new loan number, so my automatic payments weren’t posted properly. With the help of my bank, I was able to sort this out but not before the new company reported me as delinquent to the credit bureaus. I have never been late with a payment in 15 years.

I pleaded with the company to remove the delinquency from my credit report, but they declined, saying their records show that they fulfilled their obligation by notifying me that they are my new lender. Do I have any recourse and what are my options in getting this delinquency removed from my credit report?

Answer: You can try disputing the delinquency with the credit bureaus, but that is a highly automated process. The company may check its records and respond to the bureaus as it did to you, refusing to remove the black mark. It’s worth a shot, but far from guaranteed.

You most likely will need to get to the right human being to help you. Sometimes when you run into a brick wall with customer service, you can turn things around by appealing to someone’s expertise. Asking the customer service rep, “If this happened to you, what would you do to fix it?” may get you pointed in the right direction.

Of course, you may have been talking to a call center worker with little training and even less authority. If that’s the case, ask to speak to the manager. You might also write a letter to the company’s chief executive, asking directly for help.

Another option is to involve regulators. Filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or your state attorney general may get results.

A single missed payment can knock more than 100 points off good credit scores, plunging you into the “average” category and causing you to pay more for such things as credit card interest, insurance and cellphone coverage. It may take considerable effort, but it’s worth fighting back.

Q&A: Moving for cheaper foreign healthcare can be stressful

Dear Liz: My husband is 55 and we are hoping to retire in five years. That gives us time to clean up our outstanding debt (the house, car and credit card debt from medical bills). We have a little over $1 million saved. He was recently offered early retirement but didn’t take it because of our debt and my health problems. I have end-stage liver disease and recovered from liver cancer. I have been collecting disability for a while.

I’m doing relatively well for my condition. However, at any time my health can take a bad turn. So I was interested in what you said about living in other countries to get affordable healthcare. If we were to do that, how long would we need to live there to qualify for healthcare? Should we talk to a tax preparer and financial advisor?

Answer: Residency requirements to qualify for public healthcare vary by country, said Kathleen Peddicord, founder of the international living site Live and Invest Overseas. “In some cases it’s instant, in others it could take years,” she says.

In most countries, anyone who is employed or self-employed can instantly access the public system. Some countries allow non-workers to opt into this system by volunteering to pay into it, but there may be restrictions for those with pre-existing conditions. If you’re collecting Social Security disability, you probably have Medicare, but that coverage typically doesn’t extend abroad.

Expatriates in good health can use an international medical plan to bridge any gaps in coverage, but those policies also typically exclude preexisting conditions. You might have to settle for a more limited travel medical plan that would expire after six months and need to be renewed, she said. Given your serious health issues, that could be problematic.

Then there’s the potentially enormous stress of moving to a foreign country, adapting to a different culture and possibly learning a new language. Even in countries with excellent healthcare, finding specialists who can help you manage your condition, and who can communicate clearly with you, can be a hassle.

If you can find advisors familiar with life in the country of your choice, that could be helpful, but you’ll probably be doing a lot of research on your own. Before you decide to move, you should make at least one and preferably a few trips to the country to get a better idea of the challenges.

Q&A: Reporting Social Security fraud

Dear Liz: You’ve written about Social Security survivor benefits and how after one spouse dies, the other gets only one check, which is supposed to be the larger of the two the couple previously received. I know a woman who is still collecting both her own and her deceased husband’s check. How is that possible?

Answer: That can happen if the death wasn’t properly reported to the Social Security Administration. Continuing to collect and cash the dead person’s checks is fraud. You can report it by calling Social Security’s fraud hotline at (800) 269-0271 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Q&A: Do credit scores punish you for not carrying debt?

Dear Liz: I am fortunate to be able to afford homeownership without having to obtain a mortgage. The same is true of owning cars without a car loan. I pay my credit card bills in full each month. In short, I do not carry any debt.

However, it seems to me that I am being “punished” by not carrying a load of debt. My credit score is reduced by this lack of debt and I am wondering why this is.

Answer: The most commonly used credit scores don’t “know” if you’re carrying credit card debt or not. The balances used in credit score calculations are the balances the card issuers report to the bureaus on a given day (often your statement balances). You could pay the balance off the next day, or carry it for the next month, and it would have no impact on your scores.

A small part of credit scoring formulas measure your mix of credit, or whether you have both revolving accounts (such as credit cards) and installment loans (mortgages, car loans, student loans, etc.) You may get higher scores if you added an installment loan to your mix. If your scores are low, it can be worth adding a small personal loan to boost them. If your scores are good, though, it may not be worth the effort and interest expense.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: In a recent article, you mentioned spousal benefits. If someone started her own Social Security benefit at 62, is there no way of drawing a spousal benefit at a later date?

Answer: When you apply for Social Security now, you’re “deemed” (considered by the Social Security Administration) to be applying for both your own benefit and any available spousal benefit. If a spousal benefit is larger, you’ll get that, and you can’t switch back to your own benefit later.

You may be able to switch from your own benefit to a spousal benefit, however. Let’s say that when you applied at 62, your spouse had not yet applied for his or her own benefit. When he or she does apply, you’ll be automatically switched to a spousal benefit if it’s larger than your own.

Before Congress changed the rules, it was possible for one spouse to “file and suspend” — file and immediately suspend an application for retirement benefits, which was enough to allow a spouse to collect a spousal benefit. Today, a spousal benefit is typically only available if the primary earner has started his or her own retirement benefits.

Q&A: The fat in your genes/jeans

Dear Liz: In one of your recent answers, you said “avoiding obesity” was part of choosing healthier lifestyles. The problem with that statement is that a large percentage of people cannot avoid obesity, because obesity is “wired” into their genes or otherwise into their personal biological makeup. People range all over the spectrum. I personally knew a guy who would normally eat four Double Double burgers plus fries when he ate at In-N-Out Burger, and he didn’t exercise, but he was trim as a telephone pole. But guys in my family have large lumps of extra fat on their bodies, even if we don’t eat that much.

Your casual mention unfortunately reinforced the false notion that people who have obese bodies always are that way because they eat poorly or too much, while people with trim bodies are always that way because they eat wisely and exercise. That false notion just makes life harder for those of us who have obesity regardless of how we eat. I’m sure you didn’t intend to make my life more difficult at all, but that’s the effect that such casual allusions have. It would be best to stick with unassailable phrases such as “eating wisely.”

Answer: Some people definitely are blessed with faster metabolisms, and research indicates that others have a genetic predisposition to packing on weight. But obesity is largely preventable, according to the World Health Organization and other medical authorities.

The WHO recommends that individuals limit the fats and sugars they eat, increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts; and engage in regular physical activity (60 minutes a day for children and 150 minutes spread through the week for adults). Programs such as Weight Watchers or 12-step groups such as Overeaters Anonymous can help provide support. You may never be skinny, but you can definitely take steps to improve your health.