Q&A: Be strategic when closing credit accounts

Dear Liz: I recently moved to a new state and would like to open a credit card at my new credit union. I’m concerned that closing my old credit union account and card will hurt my credit scores, which are over 800. The old card, which I no longer use, has a high credit limit. My income is also lower, so I’m not sure how that will affect the credit limit I get.

Answer: Closing credit accounts can ding your credit scores, but that doesn’t mean you should never close an unwanted account. You just need to do so strategically.

First, understand that the more credit accounts you have, the less impact opening or closing an account typically has on your scores. If you have a dozen credit cards, for example, closing one will likely have less impact than if you only have two.

Still, you’d be wise to open the new account before closing the old one. That’s because closing an account lowers the amount of available credit you have, and that has a large impact on your scores.

If the new issuer doesn’t give you a credit limit close to that of the old card, you’re still probably fine closing the old account if you have a bunch of other cards. If you don’t, though, you may want to hold on to the old account to protect your scores.

Q&A: Divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I never expected to be where I am financially. I work as an independent piano teacher and my present earnings are just enough to get by (which isn’t saying much in Southern California). I was married for 18 years and am now single, with no plans to remarry.

After I turn 66 next year, I intend to apply for Social Security benefits as a divorced spouse because my personal Social Security benefits would amount to just $875 a month and my ex is doing quite well (with earnings somewhere in the six-figure range). I anticipate the divorced spousal benefit will be greater than my own.

But I have a lot of questions. Will waiting until my former husband is 66 or 70 (he is 64) do anything to maximize my benefits? Will my Social Security be taxable? How much am I allowed to continue earning if I also receive Social Security?

Answer: Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can help lower earners get larger Social Security checks. Instead of just receiving their own retirement benefit, they can receive up to half of the higher earners’ benefits. But divorced spousal benefits are different in some important ways from the spousal benefits available to married people.

If you were still married, your benefit would be based on what your husband was actually getting. If he started benefits early, that would reduce the spousal benefit you could get. You also couldn’t get a spousal benefit unless he was already receiving his own.

Divorced spousal benefits are available if your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you aren’t currently married. If you meet those qualifications, you can apply for divorced spousal benefits as long as both you and your ex are at least 62 — he doesn’t need to have started his own benefit. Your divorced spousal benefit will be based on his “primary benefit amount,” or the benefit that would be available to him at his full retirement age (which is 66 years and two months, if he was born in 1955). It doesn’t matter if he starts early or late; that doesn’t affect what you as his ex would receive.

Spousal and divorced spousal benefits don’t receive delayed retirement credits, so there’s no advantage for you to delay beyond your own full retirement age (which is 66, if you were born in 1954) to start. Your benefit would have been reduced if you’d started early, though, so you were smart to wait.

Also, waiting until your full retirement age means you won’t be subjected to the earnings test that otherwise would reduce your checks by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($17,640 in 2019).

Q&A: This is why credit scores are so confusing

Dear Liz: I am from Germany. I have had a bank account in America for over one year. Now I get my FICO score. After six months it was 738, half a year later, it was 771 and one month after that, 759. Why does it change in such a short time? Is it the real FICO score?

Answer: Welcome to the U.S. and its sometimes-baffling credit scoring systems. Even people who were born here often misunderstand how credit scores work.

You don’t have just one score; you have many, and they change all the time to reflect the changing information in your credit reports. Higher or lower balances on a credit card, a new credit application or the simple passage of time can make the numbers change.

The FICO scoring system is the most dominant, but lenders also use VantageScore, a FICO rival created by the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), plus proprietary scores.

You also will see different numbers depending on which credit bureau report is used to create the score and which version of the score is used. Credit scoring formulas may be designed for certain industries and formulas are updated over time.

So your FICO Auto Score 6 from Experian likely won’t be the same as your FICO 4 from TransUnion, your FICO Bankcard Score 4 from Equifax or your VantageScore 3 from any of the bureaus, even if you get all the scores on the same day.

It can be hard to predict which score a lender will use, but the same behaviors tend to be rewarded by all of them. Those behaviors include paying bills on time, using only a small portion of your available credit, having different types of credit (installment loans and revolving accounts, such as credit cards) and applying for new credit sparingly.

If you’re using a score to monitor your credit, it’s important to use the same kind from the same bureau — otherwise you’re comparing apples and oranges, as we say in English.

Q&A: How asking for a credit limit increase can help your credit score

Dear Liz: Does requesting a credit limit increase on a credit card affect your credit score in any way?

Answer: Such a request can result in a hard inquiry on your credit reports, which can slightly ding your scores. If you get the increase, though, that usually has a positive effect on your scores.

Credit scoring formulas, including those developed by FICO and VantageScore, are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using. That’s especially true on revolving accounts, such as credit cards. The less of your available credit you use, the better: 30% or less is good, 20% or less is better, 10% or less is best.

It’s important to keep your balances low relative to your limits even if you pay those balances in full every month (as you should). The balances that are reported to the credit bureaus, and used in calculating your scores, are typically your statement balances. If those amounts are high relative to your credit limits, your scores probably will suffer, even if you pay that balance off immediately.

People keep their credit utilization low in a number of ways. They can spread their purchases across a number of cards, make more than one payment every month (typically one right before the statement closing date, and another before the due date) or ask for credit limit increases. Any of those actions can help increase the gap between the credit they’re using and their available credit, which can help their scores.

Q&A: Keeping a bequest from doing harm

Dear Liz: I am leaving a good friend a bequest in my will. He receives government benefits, including disability, Supplemental Security Income and Medi-Cal (California’s version of Medicaid). I am beginning to be concerned that if he inherits the money, it could mess him up more than help him. Is there a way to leave someone like my friend a bequest without jeopardizing the various benefits they now receive?

Answer: You’ll want an attorney experienced in “special needs trusts” to help you put language into your estate plan that can help shelter this money and protect your friend’s benefits.

Your concern is well founded because a direct inheritance could cause him to lose income and health coverage. SSI and Medi-Cal are both “means tested” programs that require people to have less than $2,000 in assets. All too often, well-meaning friends and relatives leave direct bequests that have the unintended consequence of separating the recipients from vital services they need to survive.

Q&A: Sorting out the ex’s benefits

Dear Liz: I am 68 and plan to delay starting Social Security until I’m 70. I was married for 15 years prior to an amicable divorce 15 years ago. My ex just turned 60 and remains unmarried but may possibly marry at some future time. Does she qualify for survivor benefits? If so, what can I do to help ensure that she can efficiently apply for that benefit? We have already reviewed her option to assume my benefit upon my demise, but our benefits are virtually at identical levels and so that option does not seem applicable.

Answer: You seem to have confused divorced survivor benefits with divorced spousal benefits. She may well be eligible for both, but the only way you can help her get survivor benefits is to die. It’s great that you two are still friends, but that may be taking friendship a little too far.

Your ex is too young to claim a divorced spousal benefit, which isn’t available until she turns 62. She wouldn’t be able to get the full amount, which is 50% of your benefit at your full retirement age, until she reaches her own full retirement age. If she was born in 1959, then her full retirement age is 66 years and 10 months.

Furthermore, she would get a divorced spousal benefit only if that’s larger than her own benefit. If your benefits are “virtually identical,” that’s not likely to be the case.

If you should keel over tomorrow, though, she would be eligible to receive a divorced survivor benefit and put off receiving her own. Survivor benefits are available starting at age 60, or age 50 if the survivor is disabled, or at any age if the survivor cares for the dead person’s child who is under 16. Your ex also could marry at 60 or older without losing her survivor benefit. People who receive divorced spousal benefits, on the other hand, lose that benefit if they remarry.

Q&A: Rules about a dead ex’s pension

Dear Liz: My ex-spouse passed away recently. She had a pension, and I got 25% of the monthly amount (we had a Qualified Domestic Relations Order to divide the pension). I am now the survivor, but I still get the same amount every month. Shouldn’t I be getting what she received?

Answer: Pensions for survivors don’t always increase when the primary worker dies, and sometimes they go away entirely.

That makes them different from Social Security, where a surviving spouse would get the larger of the two checks a couple received. A qualifying divorced spouse may also qualify to get a Social Security check equal to what the deceased was getting.

What happens to the pension probably depends on the details of your QDRO. Pension companies don’t always give survivors accurate information, so check with your lawyer to see what is supposed to happen according to your agreement.

Q&A: This son’s failure to launch is hurting his parent’s finances

Dear Liz: I have a 24-year-old son who has been trying to get through college for nearly seven years. I have helped him with direct gifts and by co-signing loans, but I am pretty tapped out. He tells me he has one year left but has no way to pay for it. He is disorganized and not particularly motivated, although he does talk about things he’s learning and I think is at least somewhat committed to school (he maintains about a B to C average at the state school he attends). He has moved back home to save money and is working full time but had gone many months without a job in the last year. He accumulated credit card debt and generally is a financial disaster.

Do I take out a second mortgage or co-sign another loan, which would be a stretch for me, or do I watch him drop out of school, which seems a really harsh life lesson? I know he might be able to take a year off and then go back, but let’s be honest — if he takes a break, it becomes less likely that he’ll ever return.

Answer: You sound like you’re more than tapped out. You already may be overextended because those private education loans you co-signed are just as much your responsibility as his — and he doesn’t sound like a terrific credit risk, at least at this point. Doubling down by borrowing more money doesn’t seem like the wisest choice for either of you.

Taking a break from school could increase the chances he won’t get his degree, but it also could give him time to get his financial life in better shape and perhaps tackle some of the issues impeding his progress. His disorganization and slow pace through school could point to an underlying problem such as a learning disability or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). His college may have a counseling center that could connect him with resources to help, or you could ask your family physician for a referral.

Q&A: Keeping pace with retirement saving

Dear Liz: My wife is distressed by your recent column about how many multiples of salary are needed to retire. She interpreted the column as saying you must have the sum total of those numbers. So if you need one times your salary saved at 30, three times by 40, six times at 50 and eight times at 60, she thinks you would need 18 times your salary in total by age 60, or $1.8 million if you earn $100,000. I interpreted it to mean that your target would be $800,000 at age 60. Am I wrong?

Answer: You are interpreting the guidelines correctly: You would need eight times your salary at 60, not 18 times. The numbers, by the way, come from Fidelity Investments and are meant as general guidelines for people hoping to retire at 67 (at which point, Fidelity says they should have 10 times their salaries saved). Your needs may vary; some people will need less, some will need more. People who have large traditional defined benefit pensions, for example, may not need to save as much, while those who want to retire early or indulge in expensive hobbies, such as traveling or supporting adult children, may need to save more.

Guidelines tend to be the most helpful when you’re many years away from retirement and only guessing about how much money you’ll need. Once you’re five to 10 years from your desired retirement age, you should have a better handle on your likely expenses and sources of income. Well before you actually retire, though, you should consider consulting with a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner for a second opinion on your retirement plans. (“Fee only” means the advisor is compensated only by fees paid by clients, rather than through commissions or other arrangements. “Fiduciary” means the advisor is required to put your interests first.)

The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, the XY Planning Network and the Garrett Planning Network all represent fee-only planners and can offer referrals.

Q&A: Claiming an ex’s benefits

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question pertaining to divorced spousal Social Security benefits. Social Security told me years ago that I had to wait till my former husband died before receiving a part of his benefits. We divorced after a long-term marriage, and I remarried after age 60. Is this still true for remarried former spouses? My ex does collect Social Security, and I collect my small benefit (both of us started at full retirement age).

Answer: The information you received was correct. You can’t get spousal benefits from your ex’s work record if you’re married to someone else. You can, however, get survivor benefits if your ex dies, as long as you remarried after you turned 60.