Lenders were supposed to tell you about pandemic debt relief. What if yours didn’t?
Dear Liz: I had a problem last year and had no income so I couldn’t pay my bills for three months. I explained the situation to my creditors, but they still put the late payments on my credit reports. I called and sent letters, but it was no good: My credit score dropped to the mid-500s. How can I get the late payments taken off?
Answer: Last year, many lenders offered various kinds of hardship programs because of the pandemic. If you were approved for forbearance, the payments you missed should not have been reported as late. You could dispute the errors at the three credit bureaus (start at www.annualcreditreport.com) and ask the lenders to correct the record.
Unfortunately, lenders don’t always tell customers that forbearance or other hardship programs are available. If you weren’t given the option to enroll when you called to explain your problem, contact your lenders again, in writing, to point that out and request that the late payments be removed from your credit reports.
If a lender refuses to cooperate, consider making a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
There are big differences between debt consolidation and debt settlement programs. Also, spousal vs. divorced spousal Social Security benefits. And Medicare.
Dear Liz: I know there are different factors involved, but I find a recent upsurge in my FICO score inexplicable. My score went from about 740 to 815, according to a note in my most recent credit card statement. Yet I’ve done virtually nothing in the way of major credit activity — no purchases, no change in my already-low credit card use. I transferred about $800 from one card to another, and that’s it. If such small matters can affect the FICO score, it makes that score seem ridiculous. Can you offer any possible explanations?
Answer: Credit scoring formulas are a bit of a black box, but they are sensitive to how much of your available credit you’re using.
If you transferred the balance from a card with a very low credit limit to one with a higher limit, your scores typically would improve — although perhaps not as dramatically as the increase you’re describing.
Your scores might also improve if your balances dropped on other accounts or something that was negatively impacting your credit “fell off” or stopped being reported. The simple passage of time can improve your scores, as well, increasing the age of your credit accounts and the time since your last application for credit.
It’s impossible to say exactly what combination of factors may have affected the score you saw, but at least it moved in the right direction.
A husband asks when his wife should apply for Social Security to maximize her benefit payments.
Social Security after a spouse dies
Dear Liz: My husband recently died. Since he and I received essentially the same amount from Social Security, I will not receive any additional money. Can you explain this? Social Security could not when I both called and went to the local office. I have not seen this addressed in your column. I would think this would be a problem for many spouses.
Answer: The issue of survivor benefits has been addressed frequently in this column, but unfortunately many people still don’t understand that their benefits will drop, sometimes precipitously, when their spouse dies.
When one member of a married couple dies, one of their two Social Security checks goes away and the survivor gets the larger of the two benefits. If your husband’s check had been larger than yours, that amount would become your survivor benefit. If your benefit was the larger of the two, you would continue getting that amount.
Many people don’t consider the impact their claiming decisions will have on their surviving spouse, which is unfortunate since the survivor could live years or even decades on this reduced income. Couples often can maximize their benefits and lessen the severity of this drop in income by making sure the higher earner delays their Social Security application as long as possible, ideally until it maxes out at age 70.
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.