Money Talk: Paying bills with auto payments is scary, should it be?

credit cards
Setting up auto payments to pay bills can be nerve-racking. Should it be?
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: For several reasons you recommend using online services from the bank or credit union to pay bills. I use that method for most of our bills, but not all. Some vendors want us to set up a process where they are able to pull the desired payment directly from our account. Given the regular reports of data breaches at corporations that should know better, I refuse to give them the required permissions. Am I wrong in this?

Answer: The issue is less about potential breaches and more about getting automated payments to stop when you want them to.

Some companies make it easy to sign up for their services and devilishly hard to cancel them. Gym chains are notorious for this. Federal laws protect your right to cancel automatic payments, but you may have to enlist your bank to get the most pernicious companies to stop charging you.


If you have any doubts that your cancellation order would be honored, consider setting up automatic payments using a credit card instead of giving the company direct access to your checking account.

Clearing up the deal with Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I read your column regarding the wife who filed for her Social Security benefits at 62 and received $1,500, while her husband filed at 70 and was receiving $4,600. You noted that after the husband died she could receive his entire $4,600 payment, but wouldn’t the amount she receives as a survivor’s benefit be reduced due to her early filing?

Answer: That’s not true. An early start reduces retirement and spousal benefits. Survivor benefits operate by different rules.

A survivor benefit can be up to 100% of what the deceased spouse received or had earned. If the husband had filed for his own benefit earlier, for example, that would reduce the survivor benefit the wife could receive. Survivor benefits also can be reduced if the survivor starts receiving them before reaching his or her own full retirement age for such benefits.

But the wife’s early start on her own benefit doesn’t affect the survivor benefit she could get if he dies first.

More help leaving a house to your kids

Dear Liz: The question from the couple who wanted to leave a home to their four children hit home with me. I’m in the same boat but with only two kids. How do I go about finding an estate planning attorney that I can trust and also afford?


Answer: Start by asking for recommendations from friends, family and any financial professionals you trust. If you already have a CPA, for example, chances are they can refer you to a good estate planning attorney in your area. Consider interviewing a few candidates to make sure they handle situations similar to yours.

If you’re trying to keep costs down, consider the attorney’s overhead. Fancy buildings in expensive areas may impress, but you can find competent attorneys in less ornate offices, perhaps in suburbs or smaller towns, who charge less.

Update on that CPA search engine

Dear Liz: I am trying to find a CPA personal financial specialist per your column. Using the link you provided, I was told that there are zero people who fit that description in my area, which is hard to believe. Can you help?

Answer: A spokesperson for the American Institute of CPAs, which provided the link, notes that the directory’s “search by Zip code” function isn’t working properly and suggested searching by state or city instead.

Be patient! Find an expert!

Dear Liz: I have a quick question and would like a personal response. What email address can I use?

Answer: You can use the email address of the financial planner you hire to advise you.

Just because a question is quick doesn’t mean the answer will be. Answers to financial planning questions take time and effort to craft, plus the appropriate response may vary depending on the details of the questioner’s circumstances. This column answers a few questions of general interest for educational and entertainment purposes. A hired advisor can answer an array of queries and provide truly personalized guidance to help you get the most from your money.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner®, is a personal finance columnist. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at