Dear Liz: How can I get a clear and complete picture of the debts that are hurting my credit score? I have my credit report already. I'm a bit lost and I need to get my credit cleared up to buy a home.
Answer: You actually have three credit reports, one at each of the major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Your mortgage lender is likely to request FICO credit scores from each of the three, so you need to check all three reports.
You get your reports for free at one site: http://www.annualcreditreport.com. There are many sites masquerading as this free, federally mandated site, so make sure that you enter the URL correctly. You may be pitched credit scores or other products by the credit bureaus while you're on this site, but you won't be required to give a credit card number to get your free reports. (If the site is demanding that you give your credit card number, you're at the wrong site.)
You should understand that old, unpaid bills may be depressing your scores, but paying them off may not improve those scores. In other words, the damage has been done. You may be able to reduce the impact if you can persuade the collectors to remove the accounts from your reports in exchange for payment, something known in the collections industry as "pay for delete." But you probably can't erase the late payments and charge-offs reported by the original creditor before the accounts were turned over to collections, and those earlier marks against you are even more negative than the collection accounts.
That's not to say you should despair. Over time, your credit scores will improve as you handle credit responsibly. But you shouldn't expect overnight miracles.
Insurance as an estate planning tool
Dear Liz: I am 70 and my wife is 59. My pension covers us for both our lifetimes. We have no debt. My wife and I do not need the required minimum distributions I will soon have to start taking from my 457 deferred compensation plan, which is currently worth $1 million. I planned to invest these distributions in an index fund to leave to our son. My accountant recommends instead that I buy a joint whole life insurance policy for me and my wife because it will be tax free when our son inherits our estate years from now. Does it make sense to buy insurance as an estate planning tool?
Answer: Does your accountant sell insurance on the side, by any chance?
Because a tax pro should know that the money in that index fund would get a so-called step up in tax basis when you die and your son inherits the account. If he promptly sold the investments, he wouldn't owe any taxes on the growth in the account (the capital gains) that happened while you were alive. Even if he hangs on to the investments for a while, he would owe capital gains tax only on the growth in value since your death. That's a pretty awesome deal.
If you buy life insurance, by contrast, you'd have to weigh any tax benefit against the not-insubstantial amount you'd pay the insurer for coverage. At your ages, such a policy would be far from cheap.
Any time someone suggests that you buy life insurance when you don't actually need life insurance, you would be smart to run the proposed policy past a fee-only advisor — one who doesn't receive commissions or other incentives to sell insurance.
There's an outside chance that your accountant recommended a permanent life insurance policy for estate tax purposes. These taxes will be an issue only if the combined estate of you and your wife is worth more than $10 million. If that's the case, you should consult an estate planning attorney about your options.
Taking Social Security spousal benefits
Dear Liz: My wife will be 62 in a few months. I am 77 and we both work full time. Can she collect her spousal Social Security benefit while still working and take her full benefit at 70?
Answer: That option is available to her only if she waits until her full retirement age (currently 66) to apply for spousal benefits. If she applies for spousal benefits before age 66, she won't be able to switch to her own benefit later. Also, applying early means that her benefit would be reduced by $1 for every $2 she earns above an annual limit, which is $15,480 in 2014.