Q&A: The new reverse mortgage is safer but still expensive

Dear Liz: If you have never written about the new reverse mortgages, please consider it. I’m nearly 90 and this Home Equity Conversion Mortgage sounds too good to be true. Is it? I’ve talked to a broker and a direct lender and attended a two-hour seminar on the subject.

Answer: Reverse mortgages once deserved their bad reputation, but changes to the Federal Housing Administration’s HECM program in recent years have made them safer and less expensive. They’re still not a cheap way to borrow, though, because of significant upfront costs. Using a home equity loan or line of credit is often a better option if you can make the payments.

A reverse mortgage may be an option if you can’t make payments. These loans allow you to tap the equity in your home if you’re 62 or older. The amount you borrow plus interest compounds over time and is paid off when you die, sell or permanently move out. You can get the money as a lump sum, in a series of monthly checks or as a line of credit you can tap.

The older you get, the more you can receive from your home — but you can’t get the money all at once, as you could in the past. If you choose the lump sum option, you can only access 60% of your loan amount the first year. This restriction was put in place to keep you from blowing through your equity too fast.

While reverse mortgages have improved, some of the people touting them have not. Investment salespeople and scam artists sometimes try to push older people into reverse mortgages as a way to come up with cash to invest in their schemes.

You’re required to get counseling from someone approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to discuss how reverse mortgages work and how much one may cost you. In addition, consider hiring a fee-only financial planner to give you advice.

Q&A: More solutions for avoiding probate

Dear Liz: I’m wondering why, in your answer about whether to use a will or a living trust, you didn’t mention that probate can be avoided by using beneficiaries for assets such as mutual funds and brokerage accounts and now, in many states, homes. This seems quite relevant to the question and the gist of your answer.

Answer: Space limitations, and reader attention spans, prohibit exhaustive answers to many personal finance questions. Nowhere is that more true than in estate planning, which can get complicated quickly.

It’s hard to avoid probate entirely without a living trust. So-called transfer on death designations can indeed work for small estates, providing that the rest of the estate — the “tangible personal property” such as furniture and jewelry — is small enough to qualify for simplified probate proceedings. (In California, that limit is $150,000.)

Even with small estates, though, transfer on death designations aren’t necessarily the right solution for everyone. Beneficiary designations are easy to forget, for one thing, which can mean accounts going to the wrong people after life changes. In other words, your ex-wife or your mother may wind up with an account that should have gone to your spouse. People who choose to use transfer on death designations instead of a living trust need to remain vigilant about keeping those designations up to date.

They also need to explore other potential ramifications, especially if they’re taking a do-it-yourself approach. For example, if a beneficiary dies first, or simultaneously, the asset may wind up having to go through probate.

Also, as this column discussed a few months ago, real estate transfers in certain circumstances can cause the property to be reassessed, leading to much higher tax bills for heirs. That’s something an attorney would be able to explain to a client while preparing a will or living trust, but it’s something a DIYer might miss.

Q&A: When a living trust can save money

Dear Liz: Here’s another advantage to a living trust. If the person owns real estate in more than one jurisdiction and just uses a will, there will be a probate in the resident jurisdiction and ancillary probates the other location or locations, with the attendant time, costs and delays — all of which could be avoided with a living trust. All properties would have to be transferred into the trust, of course, and it’s always wise to have a pour-over will to make sure that anything inadvertently left out of the trust is included and protected from probate.

Answer: Good points. Living trusts are more expensive to set up than wills but can save money in the long run in such situations.

Q&A: How to make sure your financial planner is looking out for you

Dear Liz: As a recent retiree, I opened an IRA with a well-reputed, independent financial planner. I was assured of our fiduciary relationship and told “besides, it will soon be law” that advisors will have to put their clients’ interests first when offering advice about retirement funds.

I guess that whole “soon to be law” thing is out the window along with many other consumer protection regulations. My question is, should I ask my advisor to reaffirm our relationship formally and if so, is there a mechanism available to me to assure this relationship?

Answer: Technically, the U.S. Department of Labor fiduciary rule for advisors is still scheduled to begin taking effect in April, despite fierce opposition from the financial services industry. The Trump administration, however, has asked for a review to see if the rule should be modified or scrapped. That has been widely taken as a signal that the rule may never be enforced, even if it does go into effect.

So yes, retirement savers should continue to be skeptical. One way to make sure that your advisor is ready to put your interests first is to ask him or her to sign the fiduciary oath that you can find at www.thefiduciarystandard.org. The oath was created by a group of financial advisors who think that advice should always be in the clients’ best interests.

Q&A: Which is better: Will or living trust?

Dear Liz: I am 48 and my wife is 45. Should we set up a will or a living trust? Which is better?

Answer: One of the major differences between wills and living trusts is whether the estate has to go through probate, which is the court process that typically follows death. Living trusts avoid probate while wills do not.

Probate isn’t a big problem in many states, but in some — including California — it can be protracted, expensive and often worth avoiding. Another advantage of living trusts is privacy. While wills are entered into the public record, living trusts aren’t.

Living trusts can help you avoid another court-supervised process called conservancy. If you’re incapacitated, the person you’ve named as your “successor trustee” can take over management of your finances without going to court. To avoid the court process without a living trust, you’d need separate documents called powers of attorney. If you have minor children, your living trust trustee can manage their money for them. If you have a will, you would need to include language setting up a trust and naming a trustee.

One big disadvantage of living trusts is the cost. Although price tags vary, a lawyer typically charges a few hundred dollars for a will, while a living trust may cost a few thousand. Also, there’s some hassle involved, since property has to be transferred into the trust to avoid probate.

There are do-it-yourself options, including Nolo software and LegalZoom, that can save you money if your situation isn’t complicated and you’re willing to invest some time in learning about estate planning. If your situation is at all complicated, though — if you’re wealthy or have contentious relatives who are likely to challenge your documents — an experienced attorney’s help can be invaluable.

Whichever you decide, make sure that you have one or the other before too much longer. Otherwise, when you die, state law will determine who gets your stuff and who gets your kids.

Q&A:Prenup may help with student loan issue

Dear Liz: You recently heard from someone who discovered after marriage that his wife had more than $100,000 in student loans. Would having a prenuptial agreement help in this situation?

Answer: Possibly. Debts incurred before marriage are considered separate rather than joint debts, but creditors still sometimes try to go after joint assets to get paid. A prenuptial agreement, which is a written contract created before marriage, could help a couple limit liability for each other’s debts.

In this case, the husband was willing to help his wife resolve the debts, but knowing about them before marriage would have been helpful — to put it mildly. The loans probably would have turned up during the financial disclosures required when drafting a prenuptial agreement. Even couples who won’t consider a prenup should pull their credit reports together so each knows what he or she is getting into.

Q&A: How to track down an old retirement account

Dear Liz: I worked for a company during the late 1990s. When I left, I had a 401(k) worth approximately $10,000. I recently found an old 401(k) statement and called the plan administrator. I was told my company’s accounts had been transferred to another plan administrator in 2008. I called the new administrator and was told they also could not find my 401(k) using my Social Security number. How do I proceed? What are my options?

Answer: Get ready to make a lot more phone calls.

There’s no central repository for missing 401(k) funds — at least not yet. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which safeguards traditional pensions, has proposed rules that would allow it to hold orphaned 401(k) money from plans that have closed. That wouldn’t start until 2018. Another proposal, by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), would direct the IRS to set up an online database so workers could find pension and 401(k) benefits from open or closed plans, but Congress has yet to take action on that.

If your balance was less than $5,000 — which is possible, given the big market drop in 2008-2009 — your employer could have approved a forced IRA transfer and the money could be sitting with a financial services firm that accepts small accounts. If the plan was closed and your employer couldn’t find you, the money could have been transferred to an IRA, a bank account or a state escheat office. You can check state escheat offices at Unclaimed.org, but searching for an IRA or bank account may require help.

If your employer still exists, call to find out if anyone knows what happened to your money. If the company is out of business, you may be able to get free help tracking down your money from the U.S. Department of Labor (at askebsa.dol.gov or (866) 444-3272) or from the Pension Rights Center, a nonprofit pension counseling center (pensionrights.org/find-help). Another place to check is the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, a subsidiary of a private company, called PenChecks, that processes retirement checks, at www.unclaimedretirementbenefits.com.

One more wrinkle: Your employer or a plan administrator could insist you cashed in your account at some point. You may be able to prove otherwise if you’ve kept old tax returns, since those typically would show any distributions.

Your experience shows why it’s important not to lose track of old retirement accounts. Your current employer may allow you to transfer old accounts into its plan, or you can roll the money into an IRA. Either way, it’s much better to keep on top of your retirement money than to try to find it years later.

Q&A: Discontinuing automatic payments after death

Dear Liz: I use auto-pay for bills in both my business and my personal life. What can we, as consumers, do to protect ourselves and our estates from companies taking advantage of the auto-pay when we die? Do our heirs have to cancel right away? They will have so many other things to deal with in those first months after a loved one dies.

Answer: You may have read about Pia Farrenkopf, the Michigan woman whose mortgage and utility bills continued on auto payment for five years after she died. It was only after her account ran dry, the bank foreclosed on her home and a contractor was sent to fix a hole in the roof that her mummified corpse was found in a Jeep parked in her garage.

The companies receiving the payments weren’t taking advantage of her — they had no way of knowing she was dead. And not all bills will or should stop getting paid at the moment of someone’s death. Even if Farrenkopf’s death had been noticed right away, the person settling her estate likely would have kept the utilities paid and the insurance in force until the home was sold.

If you’re concerned about auto-payments continuing for too long, make sure that your executor or successor trustee has access to your bank accounts. Your bank has a power of attorney form that you can use to grant instant access, or you can provide your login credentials, either now or in the estate planning documents this person will receive at your death.

Q&A: Will closing high-interest cards hurt your credit score?

Dear Liz: I have a few credit cards with very high interest rates — in the mid-teens. My FICO has improved (805 to 830) and I carry little or no balance on the credit cards. I have contacted the issuers asking for lower interest rates but they won’t budge. I have other credit cards with single-digit interest rates. I would like to close the credit cards with the higher interest rates and understand that I may see a drop in my FICO score. How long will take to get my credit score back in the 800s? Is this a wise move?

Answer: Sites that offer credit scores often also have simulators that estimate what might happen if you take certain actions, such as closing cards. You’ll note, though, that these simulators come with plenty of caveats that add up to: Your mileage may vary. A lot.

The reality is that it’s often tough to predict exactly how account closures will affect your scores or precisely how long those scores will take to recover. That doesn’t mean you can never close a card. For example, if you’re not using the card and you’re tired of paying an annual fee, then closing it can make sense if your scores are good and you’re not going to be in the market for a major loan, such as a mortgage. (You don’t want to close or open other accounts while you’re in the process of getting a loan.) If your scores drop a bit, it won’t be a crisis.

Closing a bunch of accounts at once, however, is generally not a good idea — particularly if you’re just doing it to “show them who’s boss.” If you’re not paying interest on these cards, their rates are irrelevant.

Q&A: Options for a pension payout

Dear Liz: I am a single, 52-year-old female. I just received some information about my pension from a previous employer that gives me the option to take a lump sum of $18,701 that I can roll it into an eligible retirement plan. Or I could also take it now and be subject to penalty and taxes. Or I could defer taking payment until I’m 65, when I would start getting a monthly estimated check worth $218.68. The time is limited to make my decision. I don’t need income now, so I am interested in taking the rollover and severing ties with them. But I could wait until I am 65 and take the monthly payments. Which deal is better financially?

Answer: Theoretically you can do better with the lump sum — assuming you roll it over into an IRA or other retirement plan, invest at least half of it in stocks for long-term growth and keep your hands off the money until you’re ready to retire. If you would be tempted to do something stupid like cash out, then you’re better off with the annuity. The annuity check also is for life, while the fate of the lump sum depends on market returns.