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: What to consider before giving money for law or medical school

Dear Liz: Our daughter is in medical school using scholarships and student loans. We are now in a position to help her out, but worry that financial help might work against her sources of aid. Would it be better to pay some on her outstanding loans, give her money, pay some of her living expenses or put the money into a savings account to give her when she graduates to use towards paying down her debt? The amount we could give her would not be enough to pay for everything each semester, just something to ease her burden. We don’t want to jeopardize her ability to receive aid.

Answer: While nearly all graduate students qualify as independent — which means that parent financial information isn’t required to get aid — some medical and law schools do consider parental assets and income in their calculations.

Your daughter should call her school’s financial aid office anonymously to ask about its policy regarding parental aid, said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a college financing expert at TheCollegeSolution.com. If your help would hurt, you can use the savings account route but you needn’t wait until she graduates to give her the money. Once she files financial aid forms for her last year, she should be able to accept your largesse without consequence.

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: Watch out for shady companies promising to help you repay student loans

Dear Liz: I’m 32 and have a little over $100,000 in student debt from undergraduate and graduate school. I’m trying to get my professional life on track, and I can’t figure out how to pay the loans off. Everything I see online seems shady. What are the questions I need to be asking myself? What are the things I should be searching for on the Internet to help me get control of my financial situation?

Answer: “Shady” is exactly the right word to describe many of the companies promising student loan debt relief. They’re making false promises and charging troubled borrowers fat fees for government help that’s available for free. Many of these outfits get disciplined in one state, only to pop up in another.

If you’re struggling to pay federal student loans, you have several options for making the payments more manageable. You can research income-based repayment programs at StudentLoans.gov. Private student loans don’t have the same consumer protections or numerous repayment options, but you can contact your lenders directly to see what they offer.

The amount of debt you have is large but not insurmountable, especially if it qualified you for a well-paying job.

You don’t have to rush to pay off the federal student loans because those offer low, fixed rates, but you may want to prioritize paying off variable-rate private loans.

Also, don’t let your concern about your debt prevent you from saving for retirement. That, too, will be expensive, and the longer you wait to contribute to a retirement fund, the harder it will be to catch up.

Q&A: Avoid running out of money before you run out of breath

Dear Liz: I have two questions regarding the required minimum distributions from retirement accounts at 70½ years old. If I started taking 15% per year at 68, would I still be required to follow the IRS tables and take 27.4% at 70½? Also, can I take the required minimum distributions and roll them into a Roth?

Answer: Please, please, please hire a tax pro before you do anything else. Required minimum distributions can get complicated, and the cost of getting it wrong is huge. If you don’t withdraw enough, you’ll pay a whopping 50% federal penalty on the amount you should have withdrawn but didn’t. If you withdraw too much, you’re paying unnecessary taxes and losing years of future tax-deferred growth.

Which is exactly where you were headed. The IRS table to which you refer does not say you need to withdraw 27.4% of your nest egg at 70½. The 27.4 number is the distribution period. You divide your account balances by that figure to get the amount you’re supposed to withdraw the first year. Think about it: otherwise, your retirement accounts would be emptied within four years.

Even withdrawing 15% a year would exhaust your funds relatively quickly. A sustainable withdrawal rate — one that leaves you a reasonable chance of not running out of money before you run out of breath — is closer to 4%.

There are situations where you might want to start distributions early, even if you don’t need the money. Diligent savers might discover that their distributions would push them into a higher tax bracket if they wait until age 70½ to begin. When that’s the case, it can make sense to withdraw just enough to “fill out” their current tax bracket and pay a lower rate now rather than a higher rate later.

Here’s a simplified illustration. Let’s say a couple in their 60s has a large retirement portfolio and waiting until their 70s to start withdrawals would push them from their current 15% bracket to the 25% bracket. Instead, they might begin taking distributions early. If their current taxable income is around $30,000, for example, they could withdraw as much as $45,900 before being kicked into the 25% bracket, which begins at $75,900 for married couples.

These calculations have lots of moving parts, including different tax rates for taxable investments and for Social Security. That’s another reason to have a tax pro help you run the numbers.

Your pro will tell you that you can’t avoid taxes by rolling required minimum distributions into a Roth. You can contribute new money to a Roth, but only if you have earned income and your modified adjusted gross income is under certain limits. Those limits start to phase out at $118,000 for single filers and $186,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Q&A: Starting Social Security benefits early will cost you

Dear Liz: I started getting Social Security at age 62. I would have only gotten $327 a month based on my work history, but they gave me $666 based on my husband’s work history. He gets $1,966 but your article said I should get half. Should I be receiving more?

Answer: Probably not.

Your spousal benefit would have been half of your husband’s “primary benefit amount” only if you’d waited until your own full retirement age to apply. Because you started several years early at 62, your check was reduced by 30%.

His primary benefit amount is what he would have received if he started benefits at his own full retirement age. Full retirement age is currently 66 and will rise to 67 for people born in 1960 and later.

Q&A: My 401(k) is making only 2-3%, so why not borrow from it and pay it back at 5%?

Dear Liz: You have warned in the past about the risks of a 401(k) loan. I have been investing now for 15 years, and the last 14 years, my average return has been between 2% and 3%. I am considered moderately aggressive in my choices of international (24%), large and small cap (52%), midcap (16%) and 8% in bonds.

It has been an absolute joke (until last quarter) so I took out a loan a few years ago and was planning on doing it again when the first is repaid in approximately two years. I look at it as a 5% return to make myself a little something in an unstable and nasty market. I see the loan as my best consistent return option.

Answer: There is something wrong with your portfolio if your average annual return has been that low — and if you think paying returns out of your own pocket is a better option than putting your money to work in the markets.

If you had invested in a plain vanilla balanced fund 15 years ago, with 60% of its portfolio in stocks and 40 percent in bonds, you would have received an average annual return of over 9% (and it would be up 10% in the last year alone). While you wouldn’t have achieved 9% every single year, and your returns would vary based on when you bought your shares over the years, you certainly should have done better with your portfolio than you have.

It’s possible your plan charges higher-than-average fees or your investment choices have higher-than-average expenses. A site called FeeX will evaluate your 401(k) portfolio for free and show you how its costs stack up against other plans. You may be able to move to less expensive options within your plan or press your company to look for lower-cost providers.

The loan you took out depressed your returns as well. That money was pulled out of your investments, so it wasn’t able to participate in the market’s growth. The 5% interest rate you’re paying may seem cheap, but it’s a bad deal when compared to the returns the money could have been earning.

Q&A: Changing credit scoring formulas will help some — but not everyone

Dear Liz: I read that the credit bureaus have started deleting black marks from people’s credit reports. This is good news for me. I have never been late on a house payment in 30-plus years, but my credit is in the low 600s due to a loan I co-signed for an ex-girlfriend who has been chronically late.

Answer: The records the credit bureaus are deleting won’t help improve your scores.

The three bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — are removing virtually all civil court judgments and many tax liens from credit reports. Tax liens result from unpaid state or federal tax bills and civil judgments are court rulings from lawsuits filed over old debts, unpaid child support, evictions and other non-criminal disputes.

Judgments and liens caused a lot of disputes and complaints about accuracy because the records were often missing key identifying information and weren’t regularly updated. The bureaus are removing the records that don’t include minimum identifying information such as Social Security numbers or dates of birth in addition to names and addresses. The records must also have been updated within the previous 90 days.

The deleted records are expected to lead to small credit score increases for most of the 12 million to 14 million people who have such black marks on their credit reports.

Your issue is different. Because you co-signed, the loan appears on your credit reports as well as your ex’s. Every late payment hurts your credit scores. If your ex had simply stopped paying, your scores would have plunged even more — but then would have begun to improve as your responsible use of credit began to offset the default.

After seven years and 180 days, the defaulted loan would no longer show up on your credit reports or affect your scores. Because your ex keeps paying, albeit late, your credit scores sustain fresh damage each time. Each late payment also resets the clock on how long the negative marks show up on your credit reports. You won’t begin to get relief until the loan is paid off or refinanced.

Q&A: How cosigning a mortgage loan can bring big risks

Dear Liz: I’ve been self-employed for just over a year. Because of disbursements from a recent divorce, I have enough money to make a 40% down payment on a modest house. My income will easily cover the resulting mortgage payments, health insurance and other expenses, but I’ve been turned down for a loan several times without a cosigner. A family member has offered many times to do this, as the person doesn’t have the means or interest in buying a house anytime soon for various reasons. Reluctantly I am considering it.

This person has a good job but will not be contributing any money toward my down payment or mortgage payments. I plan on setting up a separate shared bank account that will cover at least a year to 18 months of expenses for the home in case something happens to me, so my relative isn’t burdened in any way. I also plan on listing this person as a beneficiary on the mortgage so they could choose to sell the house or live in it.

What would be the tax liability if this happens? What if we become roommates and they pay me rent? Would it be a good idea to refinance in a year or so to remove the cosigner? Would a revocable living trust be a better way to handle this situation?

Answer: The best way to handle this situation is to find a good real estate attorney who can explain your options. Your relative should do the same.

Cosigning a loan would have a lot of upside to you and mostly downside to your relative. Cosigners are equally responsible for the home loan, but they aren’t typically owners of the property.

If you want your relative to inherit the house should you die, you can include her as the property’s beneficiary in estate planning documents or a transfer on death deed, if your state has that document for real estate. (Mortgages aren’t assets, so they don’t have beneficiaries.) If your relative inherits the house, she typically wouldn’t owe taxes unless yours is one of the six states that still has an inheritance tax (Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey or Pennsylvania). In these states, closer relatives typically pay a lower rate than more distant relatives or those who aren’t related.

You also could leave a sum of money to pay the home’s expenses for a certain period. That probably would be a better idea than a shared bank account, unless your relative insists on access to such a thing as a condition of the loan. In general, you should minimize financial entanglements with people if you’re not married to them or legally or morally responsible for them.

You probably should try to refinance this loan at your earliest opportunity, rather than leaving her on the loan or inviting her to be your tenant. Even in areas where landlord-tenant law favors the landlord, such a relationship can be tricky. In other areas, you could find yourself saddled with a relative who would be extremely difficult to evict.

Q&A: When waiting to take Social Security doesn’t make sense

Dear Liz: I receive $2,400 per month in Social Security. My wife, who turned 66 in early April, was told by the Social Security Administration that her retirement benefit will be about $800. Can I get spousal benefits for her of $1,200, less what her Social Security amount will be? My problem is that she wants to wait to get her maximum amount of Social Security. Could she start spousal benefits now or does she have to wait until age 70?

Answer: Waiting would be pointless. Even though she would boost her retirement benefit by 8% each year, or a total of 32% by age 70, she still would receive less than if she just signed up for spousal benefits now.

Because she has reached her full retirement age of 66, her spousal benefit would equal 50% of what you’re receiving. (Technically, she will receive her own benefit plus an additional amount that brings her up to 50% of your benefit.)

Delayed retirement credits, which increase retirement benefits between full retirement age and age 70, don’t compound but increase benefits by two-thirds of 1% each month. There are no delayed retirement credits for spousal benefits, but spousal benefits are reduced when people start them before their own full retirement age.