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One spouse's debts might haunt the other after death

One spouse's debts might haunt the other after death
In community property states, including California, debts incurred during marriage generally remain the responsibility of a surviving spouse. (Aaron Flaum / The Norwich Bulletin)

Dear Liz: I have a terminal illness and have less than a year to live. My wife and I are in our 80s and don’t own anything: no cars, no homes. My wife has an IRA worth $140,000 that pays us $2,000 a month, and she has a small pension of $1,400 a month. We receive $3,900 from Social Security, for a total monthly income of $7,200.

We have $72,000 in credit card debt that is strangling us. I told my wife that after I’m gone she should simply ignore that debt and advise creditors that I have passed away. Or should we attempt to file bankruptcy now?

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Answer: Your return address shows you live in California, which is a community property state. Debts incurred during marriage are generally considered joint debts, so expecting creditors to go away after your death is not realistic.

Your wife’s retirement also could be at risk because California has limited creditor protection for IRAs. Federal law protects IRAs worth up to $1,283,025 in bankruptcy court, but outside bankruptcy, creditor protection depends on state law. In California, only amounts “necessary for support” are protected.

You really need to consult with a bankruptcy attorney to discuss your options. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org.

Reverse mortgages have improved but still require caution

Dear Liz: You’ve written about the potential financial flexibility and options for preserving quality of life for seniors by using a reverse mortgage line of credit. I believe there is a great need for much more cautionary advice regarding reverse mortgages.

Someone I know entered into a reverse mortgage and the consequences have been disastrous. She was barely past the minimum age of 62 when she got the loan and took the lump sum option, only to spend it hastily on various purchases and debts.

Having no income other than Social Security, and almost nonexistent savings, she faces many years of figuring out how to pay property taxes and ongoing maintenance costs to avoid foreclosure. So although she has her home, it’s a precarious situation from year to year. She also no longer has an asset that could be used for long-term care or other expenses because the reverse mortgage makes it unlikely the owner will receive any leftover proceeds after paying off the lender.

Answer: You didn’t say when your friend got her reverse mortgage, but the rules for lump-sum payouts have been tightened under the Federal Housing Administration’s Home Equity Conversion Mortgage program.

In the past, borrowers could take 100% of the loan proceeds upfront. Today, only 60% is typically available in the first year. The total amounts that can be borrowed overall have been reduced as well. These changes were meant to shore up the program’s finances, but they also could lead to fewer situations like your friend’s.

That said, people should be extremely careful about encumbering their homes in retirement. Prospective borrowers have to meet with HECM counselors to discuss a reverse mortgage’s financial implications and potential alternatives, but they would be smart to also meet with a fee-only financial planner.

Credit freeze may be inconvenient, but it’s effective

Dear Liz: Is freezing one’s credit reports the safest bet even though it’s inconvenient to get it temporarily unfrozen? Plus you have to pay a fee. At my son’s urging, I had my credit reports frozen since the Equifax incident but I find it very inconvenient whenever some financial firms need to look into my credit score.

Answer: Credit freezes remain the best way to prevent new account fraud, which is when criminals open up bogus credit accounts in your name.

It is somewhat inconvenient to have to remember to thaw the freezes when you apply for credit or other services, and you have to keep track of the personal identification numbers (PINs) that allow you to do so.

The good news is that the fees for instituting and thawing freezes will go away as of Sept. 21. The Dodd-Frank reform that Congress passed this spring included a clause requiring credit bureaus to waive those fees.

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