Q&A: A collection of advice on selling collections

Dear Liz: I concur with your advice regarding selling collections. I am a retired licensed marriage and family therapist. I’ve witnessed clients struggle with caring for a loved one and their things. One family started taking photos of their loved one with much-treasured collectible objects, and recording the stories told about them. This offered increased connection and understanding across the generations. With this recorded story, it was easier to release and sell the things. And there were a few treasures that family members asked to keep, pleasing their elders immensely!

Answer: What a lovely idea! As collectors know, it’s all about the story, and many would embrace the chance to share theirs.

Dear Liz: A friend collected and has some wonderful pieces of Japanese items such as antique tonsu chests and porcelain, some of which are quite valuable. When she was updating her estate plan, her attorney suggested she ask me, as a friend and fellow collector, to be an advisor to her family about disposing of these items after her death (assuming she predeceases me). My contact info was then shared with her loved ones. Another trick I have seen is to have copies made of receipts with identifying information and prices paid placed inside drawers of valuable furniture. Whether these items are sold at auction, estate sale or upscale consignment, the information is extremely valuable in helping to determine authenticity. Naturally, this information should also be stored with legal documents. Prior to a recent surgery I also shared my information with my sister and went over the location in my files for all pertinent information. It can be difficult for heirs to differentiate Baccarat crystal, vintage Wedgwood china and top-quality French copper from goods sold in discount chains. Once they know what the items are, the internet and EBay make it easy to get a sense of the value of items for sale. Hope you find this helpful.

Answer: Very much so, and I’m sure readers will as well. Thanks for the tips!

Dear Liz: Regarding your advice to the collectors and the impact on the executors, there can be another wrinkle: disagreements on valuations among the heirs.

I’m the executor for my parents’ estate and my mother spent a considerable amount of time and resources collecting art. Unfortunately there is little documentation on the art and it is in a niche market where it will be hard to get accurate values.

I’ve decided that when the time comes, I will use what little documentation my mother had to establish values and then divide the art collection among the heirs. If the heirs want to liquidate the art, that is their choice. It takes me out of the middle of squabbles over whether or not I got a “good” price for something. And it gives me time to decide for my portion of the collection what pieces I want to keep for myself and what I want to sell. This obviously only works when the heirs are people and not organizations and they have the ability to take the collection rather than a check.

Answer: Oh, boy.

If you are the executor, you will have a fiduciary duty to the estate. What that means is that you will be legally required to act in the estate’s best interests, rather than in your own. Cherry picking a collection is an excellent way to violate that duty and potentially get yourself sued. Another way to invite lawsuits is to rely on scanty, out-of-date documentation to establish values without attempting to get current appraisals.

If you really don’t want the hassle, ask your mother to designate, in writing, who gets what. She should discuss this with an estate planning attorney to see if her estate documents need updating or if she can include a letter detailing her bequests.

Q&A: A bill shows up twice in a credit report. Now what?

Dear Liz: I have been doing everything to raise my credit scores, which were horrible. I see some medical bills on my credit reports that seem identical. Should I try to dispute them or just let them go? I heard that if you try to dispute them, it allows the creditor to restart the clock on paying them, potentially keeping them on your report for seven more years.

Answer: You heard wrong, fortunately. Disputes don’t extend the limit on how long negative information can be reported.

You may be confusing the seven-year credit reporting time limit, which is part of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and restricts how long negative information stays on a credit report, with state statutes of limitation.

Statutes of limitation are supposed to limit how long a creditor may sue you over a debt. (The key phrase is “supposed to.” Collectors do file lawsuits on debts that are too old, hoping that the debtor won’t show up in court to point that out.)

Statutes of limitation can range from two to 15 years, depending on the state and the type of debt. In some states, it’s possible to restart the statute of limitations by making a payment on a debt, or even acknowledging that the debt is yours. (In California, the statute of limitations is four years for most debts.)

You’ll want to avoid either until you’re sure the bills are correct. You can start by disputing the bills with the credit bureaus.

If that doesn’t remove the duplicates, you can contact each collection agency in writing. Ask them to validate that the unpaid bill actually belongs to you and that they have the right to collect. Mention that if they cannot validate the debt, you want the bill removed from your credit reports. Also ask the collector to respond to your letter within 30 days.

Removing any duplicates may help your scores. Actually paying the collections typically won’t. It’s up to you whether you want to try settling the debts and risk reviving the statute of limitations, or simply wait until the debts fall off your credit reports after the seven-year mark.

Q&A: To sell or not to sell that collection

Dear Liz: You’ve twice advised collectors to sell their collections while they’re still alive, rather than leave the task to an executor who won’t have the collector’s intimate knowledge of the market for these items. Collectibles bring joy to the collector and are probably most valued the closer the end approaches. It would bring sadness rather than joy to unload them right at that point in life. Right now, I’m trying to declutter my house and even the stuff that has been moldering in boxes for decades hurts a little to let go of. I’m named as the executor in a buddy’s trust and will need to move his tools. Even if his old arthritic hands can’t operate the lathe anymore, he looks at the machine and I can see the memory of turning a bowl in the expression he wears. I say, accept the responsibility of an executor fully.

Answer: If you haven’t served as an executor, you may not fully understand how daunting and time consuming the task can be even without having to deal with a large collection.

No one is suggesting that people divest themselves entirely of a prized collection. But letting go of stuff can be immensely freeing, as well as a real gift to the people we leave behind.

If you need motivation to continue your decluttering, consider reading Margareta Magnusson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant.”

Q&A: When paying debt hurts credit score

Dear Liz: You recently answered someone whose credit scores dropped more than 30 points after they paid off a mortgage. You mentioned that the big drop was probably because the mortgage was the person’s only installment loan. Credit scores like to see active use of both types of credit, installment loans and credit cards. Because this person’s scores were so high, they almost certainly were still actively using credit cards. But you should remind people that if they stop using credit, eventually they won’t have any credit scores at all.

Answer: Consider them reminded. There’s no need to carry balances; just using credit cards regularly is enough.

A few other readers wrote in suggesting the letter writer get a personal loan as a way of increasing their scores. Although personal loans can be a great help to people building credit, there’s really no point in increasing scores once they’re above about 760 on a 300-to-850 scale. Higher scores only get you bragging rights, and it would be a little silly to pay a lender unnecessary interest to get those.

Q&A: Retitling a deed after marriage

Dear Liz: Our house was titled “joint tenant with right of survivorship” after my husband inherited the property in 1998. As a same-sex couple, we were not married at the time. However, we legally married in 2013. Will one of us get the step-up in tax basis when the other passes, or do we have to retitle the house some way? We also want to avoid probate. We live in California.

Answer: As you know, California is one of the community property states that allows both halves of a property to get a step-up in tax basis when one spouse dies. This double step-up can be a huge tax saver, since none of the appreciation that happened before the death is taxed. Other community property states include Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In Alaska, spouses can sign an agreement to make specific assets community property.

In contrast, in common law states, only half of the property gets the step-up to a new tax basis when one spouse dies. The other half retains its original tax basis.

Although assets acquired during a marriage are generally considered community property regardless of how they’re titled, in your case the property was acquired before marriage. The current title of joint tenants with right of survivorship would avoid probate, but it will not achieve full step-up in basis when the first spouse dies, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm Wolters Kluwer.

Q&A: Retirees and mobile home parks

Dear Liz: I’ve been following the discussion of the reader who was 70 and trying to decide between renting in a senior living facility versus buying a second-floor condo with no elevator. There is a third choice for people who are older and cannot stay in their present residence. We moved to a senior citizen manufactured-home park. It has a clubhouse, and before the COVID epidemic the park had all kinds of activities. It is a great place for seniors.

Answer: That’s a good suggestion and actually just one of many choices people have to age safely. Many mobile home parks are “naturally occurring retirement communities,” a term for areas that weren’t necessarily created for seniors but that nonetheless have a high concentration of older folks. At their best, these organic retirement communities provide services and activities that benefit seniors, including opportunities for socializing and the sense that their neighbors are looking out for them.

Q&A: A young widow seeks help with Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My husband died at 30, making me a widow at 29. I did receive Social Security survivor benefits for our underage children, but what, if anything, am I entitled to as his wife? At the time of his death, we were living separately, although we were still legally married.

Answer: The earliest a widow or widower can get survivor benefits is typically age 60, unless they are disabled, when survivor benefits can begin at 50. Starting benefits before their own full retirement age of 66 to 67 means accepting a reduced payment, but widows and widowers have the option of switching to their own retirement benefit later. (Retirement benefits begin at a reduced amount at age 62 and reach their maximum at age 70.)

Like other Social Security benefits, survivor benefits also are subject to the earnings test if you start them before full retirement age. The earnings test reduces your benefit by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount, which in 2020 is $18,240.

You mentioned receiving survivor benefits for your children, but you probably also received benefits then. A spouse caring for the children of a deceased worker is entitled to survivor benefits until the youngest of those children turns 16. (A child’s survivor benefits can continue until age 18, or 19 if the child is still in high school, or indefinitely if they are disabled and the disability began before age 22.) Each family member can receive up to 75% of the deceased worker’s benefit, but there’s a maximum any household can receive based on one worker’s earnings record. The limit varies but is generally 150% to 180% of the worker’s benefit.

If you had been divorced rather than separated when he died, you would still have been entitled to survivor benefits as the caretaker of underage children, no matter how long the marriage lasted. You would only receive regular survivor benefits at 60, however, if your marriage had lasted at least 10 years.

Q&A: Your prized collection isn’t going to sell itself

Dear Liz: I am in the process of winding down my duties as executor of the estate of a 91-year-old gentleman who, like the reader who wrote to you, had a prized collection. I had repeatedly urged him to dispose of his prized things. I reasoned that because he was retired and had the time, and because he knew the story behind his prized items, he was in a far better position to find a buyer than I would ever be. (Knowing the provenance of the item is important because people purchase the story, not just the item itself.) He did dispose of some of the more valuable things and actually got some good cash, which he was able to enjoy. But he didn’t follow my advice completely, which meant that when he died, I had to deal with his remaining prized collectibles.

My suggestion to any older person who has collectibles is: Don’t wait to dispose of items that have market value. If you’re retired and have the time, sell the items yourself! If you don’t need the cash, deposit the money into the bank account that will pass to your heirs in due course. Don’t burden your executor — who is probably still working full time and who has bigger things to deal with, like your house, car and investment accounts — with disposing of your collectibles.

Answer: Obviously, parting with collectibles can be tough. The alternative, though, could be that precious items wind up in a yard sale or a dumpster. Collectors who sell get the satisfaction of knowing that the items are going to people who really want them.

Q&A: His new job won’t hurt future Social Security benefits

Dear Liz: I am 67 and currently receiving a Social Security survivor’s benefit based on my deceased spouse’s work record. At 70, I plan to switch to my own Social Security retirement benefit. I’ve been offered a part-time position with a charity that I’d like to accept. However, I am concerned about how it will affect my Social Security. If I show earned income this year, it will knock off one of my 35 highest-earning years. If I stay in this position for many years, as I hope to do, each year could knock off a high-earning year. I’ve offered to do the job for free, but that is not an option for them. My high-earning years are in the $55,000 range, while this job pays maybe $6,000 a year. Am I wrong? Is not working reducing my benefit, and should I switch to my Social Security now?

Answer: Social Security can be surprisingly complicated, which is why it’s so easy to get the facts wrong and make unfortunate choices.

“Highest earning” means just that. A current year can’t “knock off” a previous year unless you make more than you did in that prior year. Only if you make more than one of those prior years will the older year be dropped from the formula. And if that happens, your benefit would go up, not down.

So take the job, enjoy giving back to your community, and allow your own benefit to continue growing by 8% each year until it maxes out at age 70.

Q&A: Refinancing brings tax questions

Dear Liz: I recently refinanced my house and got $9,400 cash back. I also received a $2,400 escrow check from my previous mortgage lender. Is this money taxable? Should I put away a certain percentage of it to pay those taxes? My plan is just to put it back into household repairs (fireplace, painting, etc.).

Answer: You got cash back because you took out a larger loan than the one you previously had. You have to pay that money back, so it’s not taxable income. The escrow check represents a refund of money you’d already paid to the first lender. You don’t get taxed on that, either.