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This innocent oversight can torpedo your credit scores

Credit cards
This is a good reminder to consider putting all credit accounts on automatic payment, so at least the minimum payments are made each month.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: My wife just had a credit card closed due to late payments, and we need some advice. It was a mileage card that she stopped using, but in November she made a charge for $120. She forgot about the charge, and in December they added the annual $60 fee. We weren’t monitoring the card, as it wasn’t being used, so we missed paying the two charges for three months. They closed the account and refused to reopen it even after we paid the balance.

This was an account my wife had for 17 years, always making payments on time, with a $26,000 credit line. Is there a way to get the company to reopen the account? Would you suggest writing a goodwill letter asking the bank to remove the account from our credit record? This was a stupid oversight on our part, and now I fear it’s going to kill our credit score!

Answer: Let’s take the good news, bad news approach.

The good news is that there is no such thing as a joint credit score. If this account was in your wife’s name alone, then only her credit scores have been affected. If you were an authorized user on the card, then the late payments may be affecting your scores as well, but you have some recourse. You can call the issuer and ask to be removed as an authorized user from the closed account, or you can dispute the account with the credit bureaus and (hopefully) get it removed that way.

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Now, the bad news. If your wife’s credit scores used to be high, they aren’t anymore. That first skipped payment probably knocked 100 points or more from her scores. The next two skipped payments just exacerbated the damage. The account’s closure didn’t help matters, but most of the damage happened when she missed the first payment.

She can try writing a letter asking the issuer for mercy, but she shouldn’t get her hopes up. The issuer no longer wants her business and has little incentive to accommodate her.

Fortunately, credit score damage isn’t permanent, but it may be a few years before her scores are back to where they were.

This is a good reminder to consider putting all credit accounts on automatic payment, so at least the minimum payments are made each month. It’s also smart to monitor at least one of your credit scores and get alerts if there’s a sudden drop. Many banks and credit cards offer free scores, as do financial websites.

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Which to tap first: IRA or Social Security?

Dear Liz: I retired in 2015 but have not started Social Security. My wife and I are living on a pension and savings. I read an article saying that taking early IRA withdrawals and holding off on Social Security can help minimize the so-called tax torpedo, which is a sharp rise and fall in marginal tax rates due to the way Social Security benefits are taxed.

I made a spreadsheet to compare the cumulative income we could expect by starting IRA withdrawals now and delaying Social Security until age 70, versus starting Social Security now and delaying the IRA withdrawals. The spreadsheets indicate that by taking early IRA distributions and delaying Social Security, we would get a significant increase in total cumulative income as the years go by.

We feel we need a professional to verify our results and perhaps advise us as to which might be our best route, as well as getting an assessment of our income tax implications for the next five years or so. My wife thinks we should ask a Certified Public Accountant and is concerned about the price of a fee-only advisor.

Answer: Your findings are similar to what researchers reported in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Financial Planning. The tax torpedo increases marginal tax rates for many middle-income households. One solution is to delay Social Security until age 70 and tap IRAs instead. That maximizes the Social Security benefit while reducing future required minimum distributions.

It’s always a good idea to get an objective second opinion on retirement distributions, however. Mistakes can be costly and irreversible. A fee-only certified financial planner should have access to powerful software that can model various scenarios to help confirm your results and guide your next steps.

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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