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Don't believe this credit score myth

Don't believe this credit score myth
Credit scoring formulas reward people who use credit responsibly. But that doesn't mean you need to take on debt to improve your scores. (Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: Is it true that no credit is as bad as bad credit? I recently paid off my house and have no car loans. I use four credit cards every month, including one for automatic monthly bills. All are paid in full as soon as I get the bills. So practically speaking, I have zero debt. Am I making a credit history if I don’t have debt? I had excellent credit scores before I paid off my house.

Answer: You still do. You don’t have to carry debt to have good credit scores.

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The myth that you do — that the only people with good credit are the ones in debt — is unfortunately a persistent one, typically spread by people who don’t understand how credit scores work. Rest assured that using your credit cards lightly but regularly, and paying the balances in full every month, is the right thing for both your scores and your finances in general.

Your paid-off mortgage should remain on your credit report for years to come, and it will continue to help your scores. Scoring formulas typically reward evidence that you can handle a variety of credit, including installment loans such as mortgages and revolving debt such as credit cards. Even after the mortgage disappears from your credit reports, however, your consistent and responsible use of your credit cards should keep your scores high.

The value of a special needs trust

Dear Liz: You recently answered an inquiry from a lady who was furious about the lack of estate planning provided by her brother-in-law for his disabled daughter. As the father of a special needs child, I read the synopsis hoping that a special needs trust was created and maybe was just not known by the sister-in-law. This would explain why the father had, in essence, disowned his own daughter. I hope you will make an addendum to your answer highlighting this very important tool for others like us to ensure our loved ones are cared for after our passing.

Answer: A special needs trust is an estate planning tool that can help disabled people continue to qualify for government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. The money can’t be given directly to the disabled person but can be spent on her behalf in a variety of ways such as paying out-of-pocket medical expenses or providing vacations. Anyone thinking of leaving a bequest to a disabled person should be aware that the money could disqualify the recipient from essential resources and consider a special needs trust instead.

If the attorneys were aware of the father’s disabled daughter, as the writer suggested, they most likely would have mentioned the possibility of creating such a trust. The sister-in-law said everything had been left to the surviving spouse, so presumably she had seen a copy of the will or trust. If not, she could ask the attorneys for the document on behalf of the daughter.

Remember, though, that the 29-year-old daughter hadn’t been signed up for disability or medical benefits until the sister-in-law intervened. The young woman had not seen a doctor since her mother died more than a decade earlier. She also was kicked out of her childhood home by the man’s surviving spouse. This does not paint a picture of a caring father who wanted to provide for his daughter.

Providing for a disabled child

Dear Liz: The letter about the disabled daughter was horrifying, but the father isn’t the only villain here. Surely the mother knew what kind of man she married. Shouldn’t she have made provisions for her daughter in her own estate plans?

Answer: Ideally, yes. No parent should assume a spouse will “do the right thing” for their kids. Even if the surviving spouse doesn’t marry the proverbial wicked stepparent who walks off with the whole estate, the survivor could be defrauded or compromised by dementia or other cognitive problems. Estate planning attorneys phrase it this way: You may trust your spouse, but do you trust your spouse’s next spouse?

Parents who have disabled children, or who hope to preserve a portion of their estate for their kids, should discuss their situation with a qualified estate planning attorney and make the appropriate provisions in their wills or living trusts.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, 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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