Adjustable mortgage poses risks

Dear Liz: Should my retired wife (age 74) and I (age 78) refinance our home just to lower our monthly payment by $100? I’m considering going for a five-year fixed at 2.74% followed by a 25-year variable. Our outstanding loans amount to $200,000. The value of our home has decreased to $400,000. My wife is fearful of the 25-year variable.

Answer: As she should be. According to mortality tables, she’d have to live with it longer than you will.

You two are old enough to remember the double-digit inflation of the 1970s and the havoc that wreaked. If inflation like that (or anything close) were to return, your mortgage payment could quickly become unaffordable.

Economists are concerned that all the cash that’s been pumped into the economy to fight the downturn could spark inflation if growth resumes. Too much cash chasing too few goods is what traditionally has led to serious inflation.

In any case, lenders know that today’s record low interest rates won’t last. That’s why they’re so eager to push loans that will become variable at some point — so that the borrowers will be the ones to shoulder the interest rate risk.

Some borrowers can take that risk, but they tend to be younger folks whose incomes are also likely to rise if inflation returns. For people on fixed incomes, the math really doesn’t work.

Do yourself and your wife a favor. If your current loan has a fixed rate, stay with what you have. If it doesn’t, consider refinancing to one that does.

Will home sale trigger eviction?

Dear Liz: Our landlady has been diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. In her precarious health, I find myself concerned that we may have to move if she gives up the duplex and moves to a care facility.

I’m unemployed and my 72-year-old husband has recently been diagnosed with early stages of dementia. I find it difficult to face the prospect of returning to work and finding proper care for him even though I know I need to do so very soon.

If she sells the duplex or leaves it to someone in her will should she die, what protection do we have against having to move out in a hurry or have our rent raised dramatically? Either situation would put us into chaos. What are our options?

Answer: If you have a lease, that contract typically would survive a change in ownership. The new owner would have to honor its terms until the lease was up. If you rent month to month, the new owner would have to follow minimum notice requirements determined by your state to raise your rent or terminate your tenancy. The Nolo website at http://www.nolo.com has additional information about tenants’ rights.

If you can no longer afford your rent, you may be eligible for government housing assistance if your income is sufficiently low. You can find more information by using the Eldercare Locator at http://www.eldercare.gov or calling (800) 677-1116. You should check out this federal service’s resources in any case, since you will have a big task ahead of you in caring for your husband even if nothing changes in your living situation.

Other good sites to explore include the Alzheimer’s Assn. at http://www.alz.org, which has information for caregivers and a “care locator” that can help you find care options in your community such as adult day centers, in-home care and respite care. And speaking of respite, you also should check out the ARCH National Respite Network at archrespite.org for people who can help when you need a break.

Carrying a balance won’t help your scores

Dear Liz: I question your advice to the father whose son was turned down for a car loan. You told the father: “Your children don’t need to take on debt to build their credit histories. A couple of credit cards, used lightly but regularly and paid off in full every month, will do the job.”

Recently I was on the phone with a credit bureau questioning an item on my credit report. I have always paid off my credit card balance every month. The credit bureau representative told me that my credit score would be higher if I paid less than the full balance owed on my credit card every month. I asked her how it could possibly hurt my credit score by paying what I owe each month on a timely basis. She assured me that it does hurt my score. I still don’t understand it, but after I read your piece I thought I would pass on to you the advice I received from this credit bureau representative.

Answer: Just because someone works at a credit bureau’s customer service center does not mean she understands how credit scores work.

The information she gave you was dead wrong. She’s not only incorrect about how credit scoring works, but she seems unclear about how credit information is actually reported to her bureau.

The credit card balances that lenders report to the bureaus don’t reflect whether you pay your debt in full. The credit card issuers report the balance on a given day each month. Typically, but not always, it’s the balance from your last statement. You could pay the full amount the day you get your bill, or pay only the minimum. The credit bureaus would never know.

The leading credit scoring formula, the FICO, uses the balances that are reported to the bureaus to calculate your credit utilization. Since neither the bureaus nor the scoring formula “know” whether you pay that balance in full or not, there’s no advantage to carrying a balance. It doesn’t help your credit; it just costs you money. That’s also why it’s important to limit how much of your credit you use at any given time, since maxing out your cards can hurt your scores, even if you pay the balance in full.

“There is no reason to carry a balance to improve your score,” said Anthony A. Sprauve, public relations director for myFico.com, the only place where people can buy their FICO scores. “If someone is paying all of their bills on time; keeping their credit card balances low or at zero; and not opening new lines of credit, they are doing the three most important things they can to have a good credit score.”

Don’t put college savings into custodial accounts

Dear Liz: I opened Uniform Transfers to Minors Act savings accounts for my two boys (now 7 and 10) when they were newborns. I chose not to go with the 529 college savings accounts because I didn’t like the restriction that the money had to be used for education. It has always been my intention to use these funds for college, but if they choose not to go to college, then it could be used to help them purchase their first homes, for example.

I’ve been squirreling away a couple hundred dollars each month in each account, but I read a few of your previous pieces and think maybe the UTMA accounts were not the best vehicle for this. Could they one day just demand the money and do with it whatever they want?

Answer: The short answer is yes. In most states, the money will become theirs at age 21 to spend however they want, although a few states let them have it at 18.

The other big disadvantage to custodial accounts such as UTMA and UGMA (Uniform Gifts to Minors Act) accounts is that they’re counted as the child’s asset in financial aid calculations. That can substantially reduce the amount of aid they get.

But even more important than the financial details is your attitude. You need to give up this notion that not going to college is a reasonable option for your kids. In the 21st century, some kind of post-secondary education is all but a necessity for a person to remain in the middle class, labor economists tell us. Your sons don’t have to study at a four-year school, but they are likely to need at least some vocational training beyond high school.

If you want to reduce the effect of these accounts on any future financial aid packages, you have a couple of options. One is to spend the money before they get to college, although that’s probably not the route you’ll want to take, given how much money you’ve already saved. If the accounts were smaller, you might just use them to buy a computer, pay for summer camp or cover the cost of tutoring. Such expenditures are allowed as long as the money is spent for the benefit of the child and doesn’t pay for expenses that are your obligation as a parent (food, shelter, clothing, medical care).

Another option is to liquidate the accounts and invest the cash in 529 plans. This would dramatically reduce the money’s effect on financial aid calculations, since it would be considered your asset rather than your child’s. The money could be withdrawn tax free to pay for qualified higher education expenses. If it’s not used for higher education, the contribution portion of the withdrawal won’t be taxed as income, but any earnings will be, plus there will be a 10% federal tax penalty on those earnings.

If you decide to transfer the money, the 529 account should be titled the same way as your UTMA accounts, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college planning website FinAid. Ownership of the account shifts to the child when he reaches the age the UTMA account would have terminated. That gives him control of the money if it’s not spent on education, but he would have had that anyway. You can read more about the details at http://www.finaid.org/savings/ugma.phtml.

“Authorized user” info may not be enough

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question about a young man who was turned down for a car loan because he graduated from college debt free and had no credit history. This is the same scenario my daughter encountered this past year.

Despite having a solid job for three years at a good salary, plenty of money in the bank (more than $10,000) and no expenses to speak of, she was turned down repeatedly for credit cards because of “no credit history.” She had been an “authorized user” of our cards for several years. (We have excellent credit scores.) She was told that she needed to be a responsible party on the cards for them to be counted in her application.

I would tell parents to have their child obtain a credit card through the bank or credit union that has her college checking account. That’s what we did with our youngest, who is just completing college and now has a credit history.

Answer: You bring up an excellent point. Although authorized user information can enhance someone’s credit scores, lenders usually have additional criteria they want applicants to meet, such as minimum income levels, job stability and a certain “thickness” to their credit files (which might include other types of credit accounts besides authorized-user accounts).

New credit regulations make it somewhat more difficult than it used to be to qualify for a credit card while in college, but it still can be easier to get a card while in school than afterward.

How young ‘uns can build credit scores

Dear Liz: Our son was recently turned down for a car loan even though my wife and I were willing to co-sign and we have excellent credit scores. The reason for the denial was “no credit history.” Because we had paid some college expenses and he had basketball athletic scholarships, our son graduated from college debt free.

My wife and I have always tried to live within our means. Other than a mortgage and the occasional car loan that we almost always paid off early, we have had no other debt. We encouraged our children to live the same way.

Did we give them bad advice? What advice can we give our daughter so she does not wind up in the same circumstances? Through a combination of work, academic merit scholarships and our savings, she is on track to graduate in 2013 without any student loans. Should she take one out in her name just so she can pay it back and have a credit history?

Answer: Your children don’t need to take on debt to build their credit histories. A couple of credit cards, used lightly but regularly and paid off in full every month, will do the job.

You may be able to give their credit histories a jump-start by adding them as authorized users to your credit cards, if you have any. Find out first whether the credit card issuer is willing to export your good history with the card to the children’s credit reports, because not all issuers will do this transfer. You may have heard that some credit-scoring formulas ignore authorized user information, but the formula used by most lenders, the FICO, still would incorporate this data in calculating your children’s scores.

Another option is for your kids to apply for secured credit cards. They would make a deposit to the issuing bank and get a credit line in the same amount. A secured card that reports to all three credit bureaus can help build credit scores over time. A number of websites highlight secured-card offers, including CreditCards.com, CardRatings.com and NerdWallet.

Tell the kids to charge no more than 30% of their credit limits (10% or less is even better), and certainly no more than they can afford to pay off in full each month.

If your daughter wants to build up her scores faster, she might want to consider a small installment loan. Having both installment and revolving accounts can lead to higher scores. Installment loans include auto loans, mortgages, personal loans and, yes, student loans. If she does decide to apply for a small student loan, make sure she fills out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and takes out federal student loans only. Federal student loans have fixed interest rates, flexible repayment terms and plenty of consumer protections. Private student loans have none of those attributes.

How spousal benefits work

Dear Liz: My wife has never worked outside the home and therefore has no Social Security credits. My understanding is that as a nonworking spouse, she is entitled to 50% of my benefit, assuming she is 66 years old and I have started receiving benefits. Is that correct?

Answer: You’ve got the right general idea. But spousal benefits are available to working spouses as well, your wife has the right to start benefits earlier (at a discounted rate) and you don’t have to actually receive checks for her to get this benefit.

Your wife is eligible for a spousal benefit based on your “primary insurance amount.” That’s the amount you would receive at your normal retirement age, no matter whether you’ve actually attained that age or started benefits. Normal retirement age is currently 66, but it will rise to 67 for people born after 1959. If she waits until her own full retirement age to start benefits, then she can qualify for a benefit equal to half your primary insurance amount. If she starts earlier, the benefit is permanently reduced.

If your wife had worked and qualified for her own retirement benefit, the Social Security Administration would give her whichever benefit paid the most — her own, or a portion of yours.

Because you’re still married, your wife wouldn’t be able to start spousal benefits until you’ve claimed your own benefit. However, if you’ve reached your full retirement age, you have the option to “file and suspend.” That means you’d file for benefits but immediately suspend your claim. That way, your benefit could continue to grow while she could begin receiving her payments.

If you were divorced but had been married at least 10 years, she could begin her benefits without waiting for you to file for your own. That exception was put into place so people wouldn’t have to seek their exes’ cooperation to get benefits.

How to make headway on student loans

Dear Liz:I owe $75,000 in student loans. It took me seven years to graduate from college due to a car accident that happened during my second year. I am now 30 and doing all I can, working 12 to 14 hours a day, but I’m not making any headway. Most if not all of my loans have gone to collections. I get the phone calls, sometimes up to 30 a day. I need some advice on how to handle all of this. It is so overwhelming. Is it possible to consolidate all of this? Make one monthly payment to one entity?

Answer: You can consolidate your federal student debt into one loan and stretch out the repayment term, which could make the debt easier to pay. You may also qualify for the income-based repayment option. Most borrowers in the income-based plan have payments that are less than 10% of their gross incomes, said Mark Kantrowitz, editor of FinAid.org and author of “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.” After 25 years of payments, you would qualify for forgiveness of any remaining balance. The payment period is shortened to 10 years if you’re in a public service job.

Private student debt isn’t nearly as flexible. You typically can’t consolidate private student loans, and lenders offer fewer repayment options — and no forgiveness.

If you have both types of debt, you may be able to make some progress on repayment by consolidating your federal loans and paying the minimum possible on those so that you can throw every available dollar at your private loans.

If you have only private debt, you’ll need to negotiate directly with your lenders to see what options are available for more affordable repayment plans. It’s important to do this as soon as possible, since if your delinquency drags on for nine months your loans will be considered in default. That can have serious consequences for your credit history and your finances.

The National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project has a lot of information and resources for student borrowers, including information about loan rehabilitation and negotiating with lenders. You can also talk to the Default Resolution Group at the U.S. Department of Education by calling (800) 621-3115.

Daily money managers can help pay the bills

Dear Liz: I read with interest your answers about older people who need a trusted gatekeeper to keep others from taking financial advantage. I want to let you know there’s great help out there for seniors: the American Assn. of Daily Money Managers. We daily money managers provide assistance to people who have difficulty managing their personal bill-paying responsibilities and associated personal paperwork. This service offers a cost-effective way for clients to get assistance with organizing, bill paying, balancing checkbooks and reviewing statements from a trusted source. A daily money manager does not replace the services of other professionals — such as CPAs, banks, financial planners and attorneys — but assists clients with daily affairs and helps maintain records and information that is essential for these professionals. People can find more information at the association’s website, http://www.aadmm.com.

Answer: Thanks for pointing out this resource. Many older Americans have trouble with household money management. They may forget to pay bills or keep track of their account balances, leading to bounced checks. Organizing their paperwork and collecting information for tax returns can become an ordeal. Some people have trusted family members who have the time to take over. For others, daily money managers can be the answer.

Daily money managers are distinct from conservators or guardians, however. They aren’t supervised by the courts, so potential clients need to take care in hiring one. In addition to the AADMM’s website, people may be able to get referrals from financial professionals such as a lawyer, financial planner or accountant. The daily money manager should be insured and willing to work with those professionals.

Daily money managers aren’t limited to helping only seniors. They also can help busy executives, travelers and people with attention deficit disorders who have trouble keeping up with daily financial details.

Helping an indigent parent navigate “the system”

Dear Liz: Our mother just turned 64, and our father is divorcing her. She hasn’t worked in years because of significant physical and mental health issues. My sister and I have been trying to figure out how she’s going to survive on $750 a month, which is the equivalent of half his Social Security. She has always had serious issues with money management, which is why there are no retirement savings or a house. We are now about to embark on the maze of social service benefits that an older woman below the poverty line can receive, partly so we can decide whether she’s better off staying put where she is in Arkansas, moving to my sister’s in Texas, moving to be near me in Maryland, or moving to her childhood home of Chicago, where most of her friends are. For a lot of complicated reasons (mostly related to the mental health issues), we are trying to avoid having her live with either of us full time, and she expresses no desire to do so. So we have to figure out the ins and outs of Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized senior housing and anything else in four different states and then try to explain it to her. If you have any hints about helping an indigent and somewhat incapacitated mother access services, we would love to hear them. We feel a little overwhelmed at the moment and aren’t even sure whom to call in each place.

Answer: It’s understandable that you feel overwhelmed. You have a huge task in front of you.

You can start with the Eldercare Locator, a free service offered by the U.S. Administration on Aging that can connect you to services for older adults and their families. You’ll find it at http://www.eldercare.gov, or you can call (800) 677-1116.

Another resource you might want to consider is a geriatric care manager. These are professionals who help family members care for elderly relatives. The care manager can evaluate your mom, review her options and make recommendations. Their services aren’t cheap, but they can be especially helpful in managing a long-distance situation. You can find referrals at the National Assn. of Geriatric Care Managers’ site, http://www.caregiver.org. And speaking of distance: It might be easier to help your mom if she lives closer to one of you, or to a trustworthy friend who can check in on her and let you know how things are going.

You also should check with an Arkansas family law attorney, since your mother may be eligible for some kind of spousal support and possibly a property division that could help her financially.

Finally, if your father dies before your mother, she still will be eligible for survivor benefits that could bump her Social Security check up to 100% of what your father was receiving. Many people don’t realize that ex-spouses can qualify for survivors’ benefits as long as the marriage lasted 10 years and the person applying for benefits didn’t remarry until after age 60.