Q&A: Mailing checks really is a bad idea

Dear Liz: I differ with your opinion that electronic payments are far more secure than sending checks through the mail. My own personal experience sending checks for about 40 years with only one mishap (which wasn’t attributable to the USPS) provides great confidence in mail as a payment system. In contrast, not a month goes by without news of some large organization entrusted with all kinds of personal and financial information being breached in a cyberattack. If the bad guys get my credit card information, I’m out no greater than $50. I’m not also going to risk them having my bank account and routing numbers for the dubious convenience of saving a stamp. Yes, mailboxes get broken into, but until there are real penalties for inadequate computer security, corporations will continue to underfund their network security and be reactive instead of proactive. I’ll take my chances with the local thieves and not the worldwide population of black hat hackers.

Answer: You’re quite right that databases where information is stored can be vulnerable to hackers if companies don’t take the proper precautions. But avoiding electronic payments doesn’t keep your information out of those databases. Information about you is collected and stored whether you like it or not. You didn’t contribute your Social Security number, date of birth and credit account details to Equifax, for example, but chances are good you were one of the 147 million Americans whose information was exposed when that credit bureau was breached.

In contrast to some databases, electronic payment transactions have strong encryption that makes it extremely difficult for hackers to intercept and read the information. Criminals would much rather target information that’s at rest in databases than try to capture and decode it in transit.

Your checks are almost certainly being converted to electronic transactions, in any case. Few checks are physically passed between banks these days. Often a biller will take the routing and account numbers that are printed on your check and use them to request an electronic funds transfer through a clearinghouse such as the Automated Clearing House (ACH).

Because those numbers are printed on every check you send out, by the way, anyone who sees that piece of paper, from a mail thief to someone inputting the payment into a company’s computer system, could misuse that information. That’s a far bigger risk than the possibility an electronic payment could be hacked in transit.

Q&A: This guy still sends checks through the mail. How that could mess up his credit score

Dear Liz: My husband has a lower credit score than I. He gives me a check every month from his personal checking account, which I deposit in our family account so I can pay our credit cards. He thinks that he needs to pay some of the cards directly in order to improve his score. He likes to send checks by mail, the old fashioned way (which drives me crazy!). Do you think this practice will improve his score?

Answer: The short answer is no. Credit scoring formulas don’t care who pays the bills, as long as the bills get paid on time.

Perhaps explaining some credit scoring basics would help.

People don’t have one credit score. They have many, because there are many different scoring formulas in use.

The most commonly used credit score is currently the FICO 8. There are many other versions of the FICO scoring formula, including some that are tweaked for different industries such as credit cards and auto loans. In addition, there are VantageScores, a rival formula created by the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Credit scores are based on the information in your credit reports at those bureaus, which are private companies that typically don’t share information. Because information can vary from bureau to bureau, your credit scores from each bureau may differ as well.

There’s no such thing as a joint credit report or a joint credit score, so couples typically will have different scores even if they have some joint accounts. How long a person has had credit, how many credit accounts the person has and the mix of credit types can be different, resulting in different scores.

Your husband may have lower scores than yours currently, but that’s not in itself a problem that needs to be fixed. If his scores are generally above 760 on the typical 300-to-850 scale, he’ll get the best rate and terms when applying for credit.

If his scores need improving, he should start by checking his credit reports from each of the three bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. (These reports used to be free just once a year, but you can now get them for free every week until April 2022.) He should dispute any information that’s inaccurate such as accounts that aren’t his or accounts showing missed payments if all payments were made on time.

He may be able to improve his scores by lowering how much of his available credit he’s using or adding an account or two. Opening accounts may temporarily ding his scores, but typically the new account will add points over time if used responsibly.

And do try to persuade him to stop sending checks in the mail. A check that goes astray can result in a missed payment that can knock 100 points or more off credit scores. Electronic payments are far more secure and efficient.

Q&A: Dementia and financial accounts

Dear Liz: You recently discussed the importance of adding spouses to financial accounts before one of them dies to make it easier for the surviving spouse. I wholeheartedly agree. I would add that this needs to be done sooner rather than later. If one of the spouses is diagnosed with dementia, the bank will likely not make changes to accounts. People have to be able to understand what they are signing.

Answer: That’s an excellent point. Another important task is to create powers of attorney for healthcare and finances. These allow someone else to make decisions for you if you are incapacitated. Someone in the early stages of dementia could sign such a document if they understand what it is, but otherwise the family might have to go to court to get a conservatorship, which can be an expensive process.

Q&A: How to find an accountant and a financial planner

Dear Liz: Can you offer advice on finding the right accountant for someone doing taxes for the first time after divorce? My husband always handled this. Also, same question for a financial planner for a newly divorced person? It’s all so overwhelming.

Answer: It is, and you’re smart to reach out for help.

You might consider hiring a personal financial specialist. This is a designation earned by CPAs who handle not just taxes but financial planning as well.

A CPA-PFS is a fiduciary, which means they’re committed to putting your best interests first. Also, many are working virtually now because of the pandemic, so you should be able to find several candidates to interview even if you live in a more remote area. You can start your search at the website of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Q&A: When your spouse dies, there are immediate financial steps to take. Here’s a checklist

Dear Liz: What financial steps need to be taken right after your spouse dies?

Answer: Your attorney or accountant may have detailed checklists to guide you through the many tasks involved. In general, though, you’ll be settling the estate, notifying appropriate parties, signing up for any benefits and shutting down potential identity theft.

To start:

Get 10 to 12 certified copies of the death certificate (ask the funeral home for these).
Find any estate planning documents, such as a will or a living trust, to start the process of settling the estate. That may require opening a probate case at the county courthouse.
If you don’t already have an estate planning or probate attorney, consider hiring one for help.
Contact your spouse’s employer about any life insurance or retirement benefits, such as a 401(k) or pension.
File a claim if your spouse had life insurance.
Call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 to ask about survivor benefits. If you and your spouse were already receiving Social Security benefits, one payment ends at your spouse’s death, and you’ll get the larger of the two checks from now on.
If your spouse served in the military, contact the Veterans Administration to inquire about additional benefits.
Cancel your spouse’s health insurance.
Contact banks, brokerages, lenders and credit card companies to inform them of the death and close accounts or transfer them to your name alone.
Notify the three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Delete or memorialize social media accounts.
There are a few things to avoid as well. A big one: Don’t give away money or assets prematurely. These may be needed to settle the estate or you may want more time to make good decisions. If you’re getting pressure from family members or anyone else, refer them to your attorney.

Be careful about making big changes, such as moving or selling a home, in the next year or so because grief can impair your decision-making abilities.

Don’t try to do all this yourself. Let the attorney assist with estate-settling tasks and hire a tax pro to file your spouse’s final tax return. Also, consider talking to a fee-only financial planner. You may have options for payouts from retirement accounts, life insurance and Social Security, for example, and your choices could dramatically affect your future standard of living.

Q&A: Now is a good time to get a financial tuneup. Here’s how

Dear Liz: I’m hoping you could provide recommendations, referrals or tips on how to help me manage my money. I’m seeking a financial planner who can help me pay my bills on time, learn to budget and pay off credit card debt.

Answer: When you’re struggling with the basics, a financial fitness coach or an accredited financial counselor may be a better fit than a financial planner.

Financial coaches and counselors specialize in budgeting, debt management, retirement planning and creating better money habits in general. Coaches and counselors in private practice typically charge $100 to $150 an hour, although many work on a sliding scale, said Rebecca Wiggins, executive director of the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education, which grants both credentials.

These accredited financial professionals also are employed by the military, credit unions and other organizations to provide services for free or low cost. You can start your search at https://www.afcpe.org/.

Q&A: How deposit insurance limits work

Dear Liz: My parents, who are in their 80s, just moved and are about to sell their former home. Their net gain from the sale will be approximately $400,000. I am advocating they put this money in a high-yield savings account as capital preservation is key. I know an individual account is insured by the FDIC for up to $250,000. But if we set it up so they are joint account holders, would the FDIC insurance limit on that one account rise to $500,000?

Answer: Yes. The FDIC insures up to $250,000 per depositor, per institution and per ownership category. Ownership categories include single accounts, joint accounts, certain retirement accounts such as IRAs, revocable trust accounts and irrevocable trust accounts, among others. Each depositor in a joint savings account is covered up to $250,000, so a couple would have $500,000 of coverage.

Q&A: Setting up nieces and nephews for success

Dear Liz: This is a little unorthodox, but I’m hoping you can help. I have six nieces and nephews from my various brothers and sisters. They range in age from babies to teenagers. When they get older, I want to be able to assist them with therapy sessions — not because I think their parents will mess them up, but because I believe mental health is important to success. I imagine telling them about this fund when they are about 18 or so, so I’d need money I can access in five to 10 years. How should I start saving for this? What accounts should I use? Should I open one account for each of them, and how can I manage this the best way for my taxes?

Answer: Custodial accounts could save money on taxes, but the money would become entirely theirs at a certain point (typically age 18 or 21) and you would lose control over what they did with it. You could hire an attorney to draft trusts that would have more restrictions, but that will cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to set up and administer.

The simplest solution would be to set up one or more accounts in your own name that you’ve earmarked for this purpose. You would pay taxes on any interest, dividends and capital gains accrued, but you would maintain control of the money and it wouldn’t affect the children’s ability to get financial aid in college.

Keeping control also gives you the flexibility to use the money for another purpose, in case your young relatives don’t need or want therapy. Mental health challenges — although widespread — aren’t universal. A survey funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found 46% of adults had a psychiatric disorder at some time in the past, and one-quarter had experienced a problem in the previous year. The most common disorders were major depression (17%), alcohol abuse (13%) and social anxiety disorder (12%).

If you’re concerned about their success and want to help with money they’re even more likely to need, consider funding 529 college savings plans. The money can grow tax-deferred and be used tax-free at virtually any post-secondary school in the U.S., as well as some abroad. You can maintain control and have the flexibility to move money to other beneficiaries, or to withdraw it at any time (although you’d pay penalties and taxes on any earnings).

Q&A: Mysterious bank charge needs investigating

Dear Liz: The other day I went to my credit union to withdraw $1,000 to pay for my sister’s burial. The bank teller kept $90 and gave me only $910. Is that done when a person withdraws cash from a bank account? I got very angry and complained to the manager of the bank, but to no avail. He did not do anything to try and get my money for me. I am a low-income senior citizen and appreciate any kind of advice you could give me.

Answer: It’s hard to imagine any legitimate bank fee that would take almost 10% of a cash withdrawal. In any case, the manager should have been able to explain why the money was taken. If the teller stole the money from you and the manager simply didn’t believe you, calling the police may have been an option. A count of the teller’s till might have revealed the discrepancy.

Consider returning to the credit union with a friend as a witness and asking the manager to explain why the teller kept $90 from your withdrawal. If the explanation doesn’t satisfy you, you can lodge a complaint with the credit union’s regulator. The National Credit Union Assn. regulates federal credit unions and can be found at NCUA.gov. For a state-chartered credit union, contact your state’s financial services regulator.