Q&A: Using your home’s equity to pay off credit card debt is a dumb move

Dear Liz: My ex-husband is a self-employed carpenter who just turned 64. He’s gotten a bit over his head with his credit cards. He tried for a home equity loan since he has plenty of equity and high credit scores. His mortgage lender says he doesn’t make enough money and that he needs a co-signer.

He owes only $50,000 on the house and needs about $40,000 to pay off his bills. Why should he be punished for working hard all these years? This is crazy and stupid. Is a reverse mortgage the way to go for him?

Answer: Possibly, but it’s concerning that he has so much credit card debt. Too often people who tap their home equity to pay off debt wind up worse off in a few years. They don’t fix the problem that caused the debt in the first place, so they continue to overspend — but now they have less of a home equity cushion to fall back on in case of emergency.

That’s especially true with a reverse mortgage. These loans allow people 62 and over to borrow against their home equity without having to make payments or repay the loan until they sell, move out or die. However, any amount they borrow and don’t repay will grow over time, typically at a variable interest rate. People who use reverse mortgages to pay off debt early in retirement can wind up unable to access their equity later, when they may need it more.

The lender isn’t trying to punish your ex for working hard, by the way. It’s saying he doesn’t appear to have enough income to pay his mortgage, cover the new loan payments and take care of his other bills. Your ex may think the lender’s standards are too strict, and it’s true many lenders are more reluctant to lend to the self-employed. He may find another lender that’s more cooperative if he shops around. But that huge amount of credit card debt indicates a serious problem that needs fixing, and another loan may not be the answer.

Since your ex feels comfortable sharing financial details with you, you might suggest that he discuss his situation with a credit counselor (the National Foundation for Credit Counseling offers referrals) and with a bankruptcy attorney (the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys). Each can assess his situation and offer different potential options he could consider.

Q&A: Can an executor withhold a copy of a will?

Dear Liz: What rights does a sibling survivor have to get a copy of a mother’s will, if the sibling is not the executor?

Answer: From the way you phrased your question, it sounds as if your sibling is serving as executor of your late mother’s estate and refusing to let you see her will. That’s unfortunate. In many states, the executor is required to give you notice of the probate proceedings, and some states also require that you receive a copy of the will if you’re named in it or the guardian of a minor child who’s a named beneficiary, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

If you’re not a beneficiary, you could still get a copy if the estate is probated. Probate is the court-supervised process of distributing someone’s estate. Rules vary by state, but small estates may bypass probate or qualify for a streamlined version. If formal probate is required, the case is typically opened in the county where the person died and the will becomes public record. Some county courthouses make records available online, while others require you to show up in person to request a copy of the public record.

If the executor fails to file the will or open a probate case when one is required, you can go to court to force the issue. You’ll want to discuss this option with an attorney.

The rules are different if your mother created a living trust rather than a will. Beneficiaries typically receive copies after the creator’s death, but living trusts are designed to avoid probate and don’t become public documents.

If she didn’t actually have a will or living trust, the laws of your state determine who gets what. Surviving spouses and children are usually first in line.

Q&A: Don’t believe this credit score myth

Dear Liz: Is it true that no credit is as bad as bad credit? I recently paid off my house and have no car loans. I use four credit cards every month, including one for automatic monthly bills. All are paid in full as soon as I get the bills. So practically speaking, I have zero debt. Am I making a credit history if I don’t have debt? I had excellent credit scores before I paid off my house.

Answer: You still do. You don’t have to carry debt to have good credit scores.

The myth that you do — that the only people with good credit are the ones in debt — is unfortunately a persistent one, typically spread by people who don’t understand how credit scores work. Rest assured that using your credit cards lightly but regularly, and paying the balances in full every month, is the right thing for both your scores and your finances in general.

Your paid-off mortgage should remain on your credit report for years to come, and it will continue to help your scores. Scoring formulas typically reward evidence that you can handle a variety of credit, including installment loans such as mortgages and revolving debt such as credit cards. Even after the mortgage disappears from your credit reports, however, your consistent and responsible use of your credit cards should keep your scores high.

Q&A: The value of a special needs trust

Dear Liz: You recently answered an inquiry from a lady who was furious about the lack of estate planning provided by her brother-in-law for his disabled daughter. As the father of a special needs child, I read the synopsis hoping that a special needs trust was created and maybe was just not known by the sister-in-law. This would explain why the father had, in essence, disowned his own daughter. I hope you will make an addendum to your answer highlighting this very important tool for others like us to ensure our loved ones are cared for after our passing.

Answer: A special needs trust is an estate planning tool that can help disabled people continue to qualify for government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. The money can’t be given directly to the disabled person but can be spent on her behalf in a variety of ways such as paying out-of-pocket medical expenses or providing vacations. Anyone thinking of leaving a bequest to a disabled person should be aware that the money could disqualify the recipient from essential resources and consider a special needs trust instead.

If the attorneys were aware of the father’s disabled daughter, as the writer suggested, they most likely would have mentioned the possibility of creating such a trust. The sister-in-law said everything had been left to the surviving spouse, so presumably she had seen a copy of the will or trust. If not, she could ask the attorneys for the document on behalf of the daughter.

Remember, though, that the 29-year-old daughter hadn’t been signed up for disability or medical benefits until the sister-in-law intervened. The young woman had not seen a doctor since her mother died more than a decade earlier. She also was kicked out of her childhood home by the man’s surviving spouse. This does not paint a picture of a caring father who wanted to provide for his daughter.

Q&A: Providing for a disabled child

Dear Liz: The letter about the disabled daughter was horrifying, but the father isn’t the only villain here. Surely the mother knew what kind of man she married. Shouldn’t she have made provisions for her daughter in her own estate plans?

Answer: Ideally, yes. No parent should assume a spouse will “do the right thing” for their kids. Even if the surviving spouse doesn’t marry the proverbial wicked stepparent who walks off with the whole estate, the survivor could be defrauded or compromised by dementia or other cognitive problems. Estate planning attorneys phrase it this way: You may trust your spouse, but do you trust your spouse’s next spouse?

Parents who have disabled children, or who hope to preserve a portion of their estate for their kids, should discuss their situation with a qualified estate planning attorney and make the appropriate provisions in their wills or living trusts.

Q&A: Disabled daughter left out of will

Dear Liz: When my husband’s brother passed away last year, he left a sizable estate to his second wife of five years (the mother of his children died 10 years ago). He left nothing to his two adult sons or young grandchildren. But the most troubling part was that he left no provision for his 29-year-old daughter who has disabilities and was still living in her childhood home.

Within months, the wife demanded that this young woman leave the property. The stepmother’s comment was, “Not my child, not my problem.”

We helped our niece move to our home and apply for Social Security disability and Medicare. She now is able to see doctors about her condition. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen a doctor, which was probably in her teens when her mother was still alive.

A wheelchair has been ordered that will enable her to go out. She has a bank account and had to be taught how to use a credit card at the store and ATM. She started classes in early September to get her high school diploma. Her brothers are stunned that she is able to do all of these things.

I am thrilled for her and the progress she’s making, but I am furious with my late brother-in-law and the attorneys who completed his will. The attorneys were aware of this young woman and her needs, yet did not counsel her father to make provisions for her.

Answer: Your fury is understandable, but it’s not a given your brother-in-law got bad advice. It could well be that the attorneys counseled him about his options for caring for his special-needs daughter, and he simply ignored them. Given his long history of ignoring his daughter and her needs, that wouldn’t be surprising.

Q&A: Here’s why timeshares are a bad investment

Dear Liz: About two years ago, I lost my timeshare because of financial hardship. I paid off the mortgage but after my divorce I missed paying the annual fees. Is there any way I can regain it, or can the company just take it like they did? Also, is it worth it to try to get it back? I think so because it is the only thing I own.

Answer: Please consider investing your money in an asset that can gain value over time. Timeshares don’t.

Timeshares give you the right to use a vacation property for one week each year. They aren’t an investment. In most cases, timeshare owners are lucky to get 10 cents on the dollar when they try to sell their interests.

Sites such as Timeshare Users Group and RedWeek are filled with ads from people trying to sell their timeshares for $1, and some will even pay others to take timeshares off their hands, perhaps by prepaying a year or two of maintenance fees. Those fees average about $900 a year but can top $3,000 on high-end properties. Resorts damaged by natural disasters or older properties that are being improved also may charge “special assessments” that can be hundreds or thousands of dollars more.

As you discovered, timeshare resorts can take back your interest if you don’t keep up with those fees. You also could have lost your timeshare if you hadn’t been able to pay the mortgage. (In general, it’s not a good idea to borrow money to pay for vacations or other luxuries, and that includes timeshares. The high interest rates charged by most timeshare resort developers make borrowing an even worse idea.)

In addition to taking your timeshare, the developers may have sold your delinquent account to a collection agency that reports to the credit bureaus. Those collections could damage your credit scores.

You could ask the resort developer if you can get the timeshare back, but you could just face the same problem again down the road. One of the biggest problems with timeshares is that there typically is no easy exit. Those annual fees and special assessments are due as long as you own the timeshare. You may not be able to find a buyer if money is tight or you’re no longer able to use it.

If you really loved vacationing at that particular resort, you probably still can. Owners who can’t use or trade their timeshare weeks often rent them out on the sites mentioned above, sometimes for less than the annual maintenance fee. Renting could be a much better deal than tying yourself to a timeshare that could become unaffordable.

Q&A: Small firms have special Medicare Part B rules

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about whether someone 65 or older with employer-provided health insurance needs to sign up for Medicare Part B, which covers doctors’ visits and requires paying premiums. Your answer was correct for an employee of a large employer. If the employer has 20 or more employees on a typical business day, then the group insurance coverage is primary when the employee has both Medicare and group insurance. So the employee does not need to purchase Medicare Part B. However, if the employer has fewer than 20 employees on a typical business day, then Medicare is primary for the employee. In that situation, the employee should buy Medicare Part B. The group health plan will not pay what Medicare should have paid had the employee elected Part B. Your answer needs the appropriate clarification.

Answer: The question was from a spouse who wanted to make sure that the rules covering her husband — the employee — also applied to her, which they do. The employee was told by his employer that he would not need to purchase Medicare Part B until he retired (and even then, there is an eight-month grace period before penalties start to accrue). That applies to spouses covered by the health insurance as well.

But you’re correct that smaller companies have different rules. It’s always a smart idea to seek clarification directly from a company’s human resources department and the health insurer as well as from the Medicare helpline at (800) MEDICARE ([800] 633-4227).

Q&A: A surviving spouse gets a pension surprise

Dear Liz: I have a question about my late husband’s pension. He was with a company for 25 years and retired early with a defined benefit pension of about $3,700 per month. When he died four years ago, the pension stopped. The company said it was a “single life” pension, but when I tried to get records proving that, they said they had no records. Do you think I have any recourse to petition for some kind of pension? Should I find a lawyer and if so, what kind of lawyer handles this type of thing?

Answer: Traditional pensions typically give workers two options: a single life annuity, whose payments are higher but cease when the recipient dies, or a joint-and-survivor annuity that continues for a surviving spouse’s lifetime. When someone is married, the default option is supposed to be the joint-and-survivor annuity unless the spouse signs a waiver giving up rights to lifetime income. If the company can’t or won’t provide proof of such a waiver, then you’d be smart to get legal help to pursue the issue.

You may be able to get free legal assistance through the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Pension Counseling and Information Program, which currently serves 30 states. If you live in one of the states that isn’t served, you may be able to get help by visiting PensionHelp America, a site run by the nonprofit Pension Rights Center.

Q&A: The payments aren’t late, but the debt collectors are calling. What does it mean?

Dear Liz: In the last few months, I have received collection calls and emails for payment, sometimes before I even got the invoice and in every case before payment was due. For example, on Sept. 25 I was emailed for the second time for payment on an invoice with an Oct. 17 due date. Some but not all of these communications relate to medical bills. Is this legal?

Answer: Probably. Most companies wait until a bill is seriously overdue before turning it over to collections. Some hire collection agencies much sooner, however, and a few — including some medical providers — turn over their whole accounts receivable process. That means the collectors are responsible for regular billing, not just debt collection.

It’s unpleasant to hear from collectors, especially on an account that isn’t overdue, but you’re not likely to face credit score damage as long as the bill gets paid on time. Even if it’s past due, there is now a 180-day waiting period before unpaid medical debts can show up on people’s credit reports. (The clock starts on the bill’s first due date.)

Collectors may justify their “outreach” calls and emails by saying many people are confused by medical billing and put off paying because they think insurance will take care of the bill. That doesn’t make such contacts less annoying for those who pay on time.

Consider letting the medical providers and other companies know that you don’t approve of these tactics. Some may care enough about customer service to change their billing approach, or require the collection company to stop the premature contacts.