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How to improve your credit scores

Dear Liz: I don’t have a credit score. I have one item on my credit report that’s a court judgment. What can I do to get a score? If I pay the balance due for the judgment, would it be removed?

Answer: Paying a judgment doesn’t remove it from your credit reports, but it does limit the amount of time that the judgment can hurt you.

By federal law, an unpaid judgment can remain on your reports for seven years after it was entered against you. But creditors often have 10 to 20 years, depending on the state, to use the judgment to garnish your paycheck or put a levy on your bank account. Some states allow creditors to renew a judgment that hasn’t been paid, which means that it could pop back up on your credit reports after the initial seven-year period has expired.

To answer your other question, you get credit scores by having and using credit. The leading FICO formula needs six months’ of credit history to generate scores. One way to get credit if you don’t have any is with a secured credit card. These cards typically give you a line of credit equal to the deposit you make at the bank that issues the card. Use the card lightly but regularly and pay the balance on time and in full each month. You don’t need to pay credit card interest or carry debt to create good scores.

Another option is a “credit builder” loan, sometimes offered by member-owned credit unions. One form of credit builder loan puts your payments, minus interest, into a certificate of deposit that’s yours to keep once you’ve made the final payment. With one loan, in other words, you build your credit and your savings.

You can build credit either way, but having both types of credit — revolving accounts such as credit cards and installment loans such as a credit-builder loan — can help you build it faster.

Amending a living trust

Dear Liz: My husband and I had a lawyer draw up a revocable living trust and a pour-over will six years ago.  We need to amend a couple of areas, and I found it could be done with a form from a self-help legal site. Also, we need to add our home into the trust. My husband doesn't want to use a lawyer. Can we legally do the amendment and addition of the home without a lawyer?

Answer: Sure. But your heirs may pay for any mistakes you make.

The big red flag is that you haven’t transferred your home to the living trust, even though you’ve had six years to do so. If it’s not in the trust, it will be subject to probate, the court process that the trust is meant to avoid. You need to be extremely diligent if you’re going to try to create a do-it-yourself estate plan, and you’ve already proved that you aren’t. All you’ve done is undermine the estate plan you paid for years ago.

Amending the trust, and having a lawyer help you transfer your home into it, probably will cost a fraction of what you paid originally. It also would give your attorney an opportunity a chance to review the documents in case other changes need to be addressed. A relatively small investment could pay off in peace of mind that the job has finally been done right.

How to retrieve old W-2 forms

Dear Liz: I have several years missing from my Social Security earnings history, dating back to 1999. I have been filing income taxes jointly with my wife but we only kept our files for five years. How do I go about retrieving past income documents like my W-2s? I contacted Social Security and the IRS but can only get tax transcripts dating back to 2009.

Answer: Social Security says you ordinarily have three years to report mistakes. (Actually, being Social Security, it’s “three years, three months and 15 days.”) But you can correct mistakes further back if you have sufficient proof, such as tax forms, W-2s or pay stubs.

You can try contacting old employers to see if they can produce the W-2s you’re missing. Otherwise, write down as much as you can remember about where you worked, including the name of the employer, the dates you worked there and how much you earned. Then contact Social Security again, provide the information you’ve gathered and ask for help in filling in those missing years.

This is one reason why it’s smart to hang onto tax returns indefinitely. Even though you can (and probably should) shred backup documentation after seven years or so, you should keep copies of anything filed with the IRS, including W-2 forms.

Liz Weston is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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