Q&A: Finding someone to sell your stuff after you’re gone

Dear Liz: I have a question on how to have my affairs managed after I die. I am single, with no children or living relatives, so finding someone to handle my estate is a challenge. Do you have a recommendation for where I can find a person or business, such as a bank’s trust department? I have a living trust but need to have someone sell all my assets (many are collectible and worth the extra effort in their sale). Do I need to go through probate just to ensure none of my assets are “lost” by the executor? Should I make a list of valuable items that would easily be omitted from the sale and distribution? To ensure all items are accounted for, to whom would I now provide the list?

Answer: Your living trust should name a successor trustee who can take over managing your affairs if you should become incapacitated or die. The successor trustee will be the one who will pay your final bills and sell or distribute your stuff after you’re gone. A list of your valuable items, along with the names of experts who can help with their sale, could help with that process. You can store that information with your living trust.

The person you choose doesn’t need to be a collectibles expert or even particularly financially savvy as long as they’ve got common sense and integrity. Successor trustees can hire any help that they need.

But this should be a person you trust completely because you’re putting a lot of power and discretion in their hands. If you’re worried this person will “lose” or mishandle your estate, you probably should choose someone else or reconsider having a living trust. Allowing your estate to go through probate instead would provide at least some court supervision of an estate’s distribution.

You may be able to hire a successor trustee. Bank trust departments can serve as successor trustees, but they tend to charge significant fees and are unlikely to want the job if your estate isn’t substantial. Another option might be a private trust services company or a professional fiduciary. Neither are exactly cheap, but they’re likely to be less expensive than a bank. Any of these options require making arrangements in advance — you can’t just name a company or fiduciary and expect them to take on the work.

Q&A: Survivor benefits and remarriage

Dear Liz: Regarding your recent advice to the person whose husband had just died. I could be completely wrong, but I think that in order to collect her late husband’s benefits when she turns 60, she can’t remarry.

Answer: You’re right that you’re wrong, but your confusion is understandable.

There are different types of Social Security benefits that people can receive based on the earnings of a spouse or ex-spouse. People whose spouses or ex-spouses have died may collect survivor benefits. Those benefits can continue if the survivor remarries at 60 or later.

The other type of benefit is a spousal benefit, which is based on a living person’s earnings record and which may be available to current spouses as well as ex-spouses. Someone who is divorced and receiving spousal benefits based on an ex’s earning record will lose those benefits if they remarry at any age.

Q&A: Social Security earning years matter

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you wrote that Social Security’s estimates of the dollar amount one will receive at various ages — 62, full retirement age of 66 to 67, or 70 — assumes one continues working until one applies. Therefore, one won’t receive the amount posted at full retirement age if one had stopped working at, say, age 62. Aren’t people’s benefits based on their top 35 earning years?

Answer: Yes, which is why I wrote that the benefit may be lower. Social Security assumes you’ll keep earning the same amount you are now. Those assumed future earnings could be high enough to replace one or more of your previous 35 highest-earning years. If that’s the case, your estimated benefit could be somewhat larger than the one you actually receive if you stop work early.

Q&A: Weekly free credit reports

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you wrote that credit reports are now available weekly from AnnualCreditReport.com. Most people understand that they are entitled to a free credit report once a year via that site. Please explain what is meant by “now available weekly?” By signing up for a paid service from one or more of the credit reporting agencies, or for free, or what?

Answer: AnnualCreditReport.com was created to provide free annual reports, but now you can get your free reports every week.

If you navigate to AnnualCreditReport.com, you’ll see an announcement from the three credit bureaus that the site will provide free credit reports weekly until April 2021.

Free means free. You don’t have to pay or provide credit card information, although the bureaus may try to sell you credit monitoring or other services.

Q&A: Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My husband passed away at age 59 last year. He was sick and unable to work the last four years of his life. I will be 56 in October. My understanding is I will not be able to draw his Social Security benefits until I am age 60. Is this correct? I struggle financially and need that money now. Also, could he have drawn his Social Security benefits before he turned 60 since he was unable to work?

Answer: Your husband could not draw retirement benefits before age 62, but he may have been a candidate for Social Security Disability Income or Supplemental Security Income if his condition was severe enough to prevent him from working. SSDI is available to people who have worked long enough to be “insured,” which generally means 10 years in jobs that pay into Social Security. SSI is intended for aged, blind and disabled people with low incomes and few assets.

You won’t be eligible for survivor benefits until you’re 60. If you’re struggling, please visit Benefits.gov to see if you’re eligible for other government programs. You also can call 211 or visit 211.org to see what resources in your community may be available to help you.

Q&A: When credit scores take a pandemic dive, how to figure out what caused it

Dear Liz: My VantageScores as reported by TransUnion were in the 780 to 790 range until around February, when they all dropped 40 points for no discernible reason. My FICO 8 and 9 credit scores remained unchanged around 760 and still continue to increase. What would cause that?

Answer: VantageScores tend to react more than FICO scores when you apply for new credit, but 40 points is a pretty big drop. The other usual culprit when good scores fall is higher credit utilization, or using more of your available credit, but typically your FICO scores would have dropped as well.

Most credit monitoring services will offer you some kind of explanation for why your scores changed, so that would be the first place to look for clues. You also should check your credit reports, which are now available weekly from AnnualCreditReport.com.

Q&A: Learning an expensive car loan lesson

Dear Liz: My grandson bought a new car with a loan that has a 24% interest rate. He owes $17,000, and the car is now worth $5,000. What options does he have to get out of this situation?

Answer: The best solution would be to refinance, but that can happen only if your grandson has some equity in the car or is able to get a lower-rate, unsecured personal loan to pay off the car loan. Your grandson probably would need good credit and steady employment to get a personal loan, as lenders are scrutinizing applications more closely these days.

Otherwise, his best course is to “drive out of the loan,” or keep making payments until he owns the vehicle free and clear. He should be making extra principal payments, if possible, to speed up that day.

You can encourage him to hang on to this car as long as possible after it’s paid off so that he can save up the cash for his next car. If he can learn from this experience to pay cash for cars, or to have at least a 20% down payment, then the expensive lesson may have been worth it.

Q&A: Social Security isn’t going broke

Dear Liz: You have addressed Social Security in your column recently and detailed the benefits to waiting until age 70 to take payments. I read that Social Security funds are expected to run out around 2035. At that time I’ll be 76 and would only get six years of benefits versus 13 years if I start at age 62. Do you still think it is wise to wait on benefits as Social Security may go away?

Answer: Social Security isn’t going anywhere. What’s being depleted is its trust fund, which is used to supplement the taxes Social Security collects to pay benefits. This trust fund is scheduled to be out of money in 2031, according to a new Congressional Budget Office estimate that takes into account the effects of the pandemic. Even if the fund is depleted, however, the system will still collect enough in taxes to pay 76% of promised benefits.

So benefits won’t stop, and it’s highly unlikely Congress would allow benefits to be cut for retirees and near retirees. Social Security is a hugely popular program, and such cuts would be politically unpopular, to say the least, which is why most experts predict that lawmakers will fix the system before that happens.

If you allow yourself to be panicked into starting benefits early, on the other hand, you’re permanently reducing your benefit by 30%. If you’re married and are the higher earner, you’d also be locking in a lower survivor benefit. A lower Social Security benefit can have a huge effect on your standard of living in retirement, so make sure you understand the facts about the system before making a decision you may live to regret.

Q&A: Remodel the house or sell it?

Dear Liz: Should we take out a home equity loan so we can do some improvements on our house and make it work better for us, or should we sell it and upgrade to a bigger house? We are not in a rush to move, so we are content to take our time to find the right new home at the right price. We are also considering staying and doing work on our current home. But we have a lot of equity and are wondering: Would it be smarter to cash that in? We both remember the housing crash and are very nervous about getting in over our heads.

Answer: People are spending a lot of time at home these days, and many are longing for a little extra space. Interest rates are low, which makes borrowing for improvements or a bigger home more affordable for many.

You’re smart to be cautious about taking on too much debt, though. Lenders are much more cautious than they were before the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, but it’s still possible to borrow more than you can comfortably repay. Big mortgage payments could prevent you from saving for important goals such as retirement or your children’s college education.

If you like your current neighborhood, remodeling is often the more economical route. You spend roughly 10% of your home’s value when you sell it and buy another. Real estate commissions take a big chunk, as do moving costs. Bigger houses — whether through remodeling or moving — also can mean higher tax, insurance and utility bills. That’s not to say you should never upgrade, but you’re smart to consider all your options because the cost of exchanging homes is pretty high.

By the way, you aren’t really cashing in equity when you use it to buy another home or borrow against it to make improvements. Some people would say that’s “putting your equity to work,” but the idea that equity needs employment is what led many people to borrow excessively against their homes before the last recession. It’s perfectly fine, and often desirable, to have lots of equity just sitting around. That way, it’s there for you when you really need it. You can tap it in an emergency, for example, or to help fund your retirement.

Q&A: Managing retirement savings

Dear Liz: I’m considering converting an old 401(k) to a Roth IRA. Will the gains from the 401(k) account be treated as capital gains? And can you only convert 401(k) plans you no longer participate in, or can you convert both current and former 401(k) plans?

Answer: You’ll pay income taxes on the conversion. Retirement plans, including 401(k)s and IRAs, don’t qualify for capital gains tax rates. You may be able to convert your current 401(k) as well. Ask your plan administrator if “in plan Roth conversions” are allowed.