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Be strategic when closing credit accounts

credit cards
Closing an account could lower your overall credit limit, which could affect your credit scores.
(Gabe Hernandez / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: I recently moved to a new state and would like to open a credit card at my new credit union. I’m concerned that closing my old credit union account and card will hurt my credit scores, which are over 800. The old card, which I no longer use, has a high credit limit. My income is also lower, so I’m not sure how that will affect the credit limit I get.

Answer: Closing credit accounts can ding your credit scores, but that doesn’t mean you should never close an unwanted account. You just need to do so strategically.

For the record:
4:27 PM, Aug. 19, 2019 This column’s answer about Social Security benefits incorrectly stated that only divorced spousal benefits, not spousal benefits, are based on the worker’s primary insurance amount. Both spousal and divorced spousal benefits are based on the worker’s primary insurance amount, or what the worker would get at full retirement age regardless of when the worker actually applies. The column also said divorced spousal benefits are available if you are unmarried, your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you and your ex are at least 62 whether or not the ex has started his own benefit. That is true unless than divorce occurred less than two years prior to the application. If the divorce is less than two years old, the ex must have started his or her benefit for a divorced spousal benefit to begin.

First, understand that the more credit accounts you have, the less impact opening or closing an account typically has on your scores. If you have a dozen credit cards, for example, closing one will likely have less impact than if you only have two.

Still, you’d be wise to open the new account before closing the old one. That’s because closing an account lowers the amount of available credit you have, and that has a large impact on your scores.

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If the new issuer doesn’t give you a credit limit close to that of the old card, you’re still probably fine closing the old account if you have a bunch of other cards. If you don’t, though, you may want to hold on to the old account to protect your scores.

Divorced spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I never expected to be where I am financially. I work as an independent piano teacher and my present earnings are just enough to get by (which isn’t saying much in Southern California). I was married for 18 years and am now single, with no plans to remarry.

After I turn 66 next year, I intend to apply for Social Security benefits as a divorced spouse because my personal Social Security benefits would amount to just $875 a month and my ex is doing quite well (with earnings somewhere in the six-figure range). I anticipate the divorced spousal benefit will be greater than my own.

But I have a lot of questions. Will waiting until my former husband is 66 or 70 (he is 64) do anything to maximize my benefits? Will my Social Security be taxable? How much am I allowed to continue earning if I also receive Social Security?

Answer: Spousal and divorced spousal benefits can help lower earners get larger Social Security checks. Instead of just receiving their own retirement benefit, they can receive up to half of the higher earners’ benefits. But divorced spousal benefits are different in some important ways from the spousal benefits available to married people.

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If you were still married, your benefit would be based on what your husband was actually getting. If he started benefits early, that would reduce the spousal benefit you could get. You also couldn’t get a spousal benefit unless he was already receiving his own.

Divorced spousal benefits are available if your marriage lasted at least 10 years and you aren’t currently married. If you meet those qualifications, you can apply for divorced spousal benefits as long as both you and your ex are at least 62 — he doesn’t need to have started his own benefit. Your divorced spousal benefit will be based on his “primary benefit amount,” or the benefit that would be available to him at his full retirement age (which is 66 years and two months, if he was born in 1955). It doesn’t matter if he starts early or late; that doesn’t affect what you as his ex would receive.

Spousal and divorced spousal benefits don’t receive delayed retirement credits, so there’s no advantage for you to delay beyond your own full retirement age (which is 66, if you were born in 1954) to start. Your benefit would have been reduced if you’d started early, though, so you were smart to wait.

Also, waiting until your full retirement age means you won’t be subjected to the earnings test that otherwise would reduce your checks by $1 for every $2 you earn over a certain amount ($17,640 in 2019).

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.


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