Dear Liz: My healthy and active 82-year-old mother is faced with having to sell her home this year because she's running out of money. She has lived a very minimal lifestyle for many years as her savings dwindled, and her income is now basically Social Security. She owes $25,000 on a home worth more than $700,000 in a top school district. We don't know if we are jumping the gun with this sale. I could move in with her and pay rent for a year or two, although that would mean a longer commute for me and would just put off the day she has to sell. There are things that must be done to the house for upkeep, and her being cash-poor puts her in a crunch. My brother will help pay for minor sprucing up depending on what the real estate agent says we need to do to make the house presentable, but if Mom remains in the home there are other things to be done. We are assuming that we should sell it and find an apartment for her to rent until she needs more assisted living at a later age. Are we right to take action now?
Answer: Your family needs to take action, but setting your mother up for not just one but possibly two future moves probably isn't the best course. Moving is terribly disruptive, and AARP surveys show that the vast majority of older people prefer to "age in place" rather than leave their homes.
Investigate reverse mortgages as one option. With a reverse mortgage, your mom could pay off her small mortgage and tap the substantial equity in her home. She could get a lump sum, a stream of monthly checks or a line of credit that could allow her to fix her home and live more comfortably. She wouldn't have to make payments or pay income taxes on this loan, and it wouldn't have to be paid off until she dies or moves out.
Reverse mortgages can be expensive because of the fees involved, although a new version of the federal Home Equity Conversion Mortgage offers lower upfront fees, and some lenders will waive or reduce their fees. You'll want to do plenty of research, and shop around to make sure you get the best deal. The AARP and U.S. Housing and Urban Development websites have a lot of information about reverse mortgages.
If your mom decides she'd rather sell, she should consider a move directly to a senior community that offers assisted living as an option. She will have the most choices if she's healthy when she moves in. Although she may never need the assisted living option, many people start to need some kind of help with daily activities by the time they reach their mid-80s.
Protecting Social Security numbers
Dear Liz: Your recent column about disclosing Social Security numbers raises an important question. Federal tax law requires millions of Americans to disclose their Social Security numbers to those who pay a recipient at least $600 in a year. In practice, many payers request this information when paying much less than that. Millions of people have their Social Security numbers floating around on millions of computers, many of which are not secure. Why doesn't anyone write about this or discuss the consequences of being required by law to disclose your Social Security number all over the place? This requirement is a recipe for identity theft.
Answer: You've pointed out another problem with using Social Security numbers as an all-purpose identifier. Federal and state laws require businesses that collect Social Security numbers to protect that information. But the fact remains that the more entities that have your number, the more vulnerable you may be to identity theft.
As an individual, you're unlikely to change the IRS' mind about the necessity of collecting this information. But when you're asked for your Social Security or tax ID number, it's fair to ask the requester how your information will be protected. That at least puts the requester on notice that you expect the laws regarding the safeguarding of personal information to be followed.
Closing credit card accounts
Dear Liz: I was able to pay off 80% of my credit card debt recently. I have several cards from stores I no longer shop at and have not had activity for several months. Should I cancel those cards to reduce the number of active cards or leave them alone?
Answer: Closing accounts won't help your credit scores, and may hurt them. If you're trying to improve your scores or plan to get a major loan in the next several months, leave them open.
If your scores are fine and you don't expect to apply for a mortgage or car loan soon, then you certainly can close a few retail cards. But try to keep open your major credit cards, such as Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express.
Questions for possible inclusion in Liz Weston's column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604 or via http://www.asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.