Elderly couple ponders options for debt

DEAR BRUCE: My wife and I owe approximately $250,000 on 18 credit cards. We have $45,000 in our checking account and approximately $45,000 in IRAs. Our mobile home is in Florida, our furniture is worth about $35,000 now and our car about $7,000. My wife and I are 81 years old. Our total monthly income is $2,035 from Social Security and $200 from a private pension. We have not shared any of these facts and figures with our creditors. We have not used any of the credit cards since Oct. 1 and have agreed to return all of them. We have written letters to all of our creditors in the hope that they will allow us to pay them $50 per month until the economy improves and until the total debt, including all of the interest charges that will accrue, is paid off. We have a long history of paying all of our bills each month, on time, and paying off the entire balance every few years. On two occasions, the total amount paid off among the cards exceeded $100,000. We are desperately trying to avoid bankruptcy. Do you think we have a chance? What would you do? — A.H., via e-mail

DEAR A.H.: As you are 81 years old, I don't think there's a whole lot they can do or are going to do. They may very well go after your assets. You have a net worth of approximately $125,000 and you owe twice that much. Let us assume that you just paid off $100,000 out of your liquid assets. You'd still owe $150,000, and at $600 a year, it would take you 250 years to reduce the debt. Even if the market comes back with a bang, there is no way you're going to come close to meeting this obligation. That's the reality. Because of your age, it would be interesting to hear how much you will be allowed to keep of your assets. Your income is almost completely safe, as they can't go after your Social Security. Your best bet would be to contact an attorney who might be able to negotiate with these folks or in the absence of that, Chapter 7 certainly is an alternative.

DEAR BRUCE: My current credit rating is 756. I want to boost my score by closing out some cards that I have, but am not sure which would provide the higher boost. I have one card that has a $30,000 limit, which had a high balance of $29,000 and is now at $0. I no longer need this card, and it's only about 18 months old. I have other cards, such as store cards, that I use occasionally, that are older (about seven or eight years old), but have small credit limits ($600 to $1,000). Those are always paid in full, and when in use, the balance never exceeds a couple hundred. I have three other cards that I use for different purposes that average $1,000 a month in use. These I need to keep. But as with the store cards, the balance is paid in full every month. I always pay my bills on time and never go over any limits. So closing some cards is the only thing I can think of to boost my number. Of the cards I don't use, which should I close out to maximize the increase in my score? Which are better to keep open, the ones with higher availability or the older ones? — Susie, via e-mail

DEAR SUSIE: Without getting into all the minutiae, what is your problem? A credit score of 756 is a very substantial one, and I can't think that raising it a few points is going to have any major advantage to you. If there are cards you're not using and you want to get rid of them, that's another matter. You would be better advised to use these cards occasionally and then immediately pay them off when you get the bill so that your score isn't reduced further. Unless there is some reason for this huge exercise, I'd say just continue on how you are and use each card occasionally.

DEAR BRUCE: Do you have any recommendations for someone who has credit card debt? I have always just made the minimum payments, but I am now having trouble managing even that. Now I am making late payments on some of them and don't know what to do. Are there any debt settlement companies that are trustworthy, and is this something I should look into? If not, is there any other option for me? — S.P., via e-mail

DEAR S.P.: When you're making only minimum payments, that is a sure sign of trouble — either on the way or already in progress. The fact that you can't even manage them indicates that you are continuing to build up an even larger debt. I have never found a debt settlement company that I would be comfortable with, and further, if you go this route, you are going to destroy your credit, though that might not be a factor in your case. Contact the credit card companies and tell them you are having a problem. Say that you'd like to meet your obligations but need to have your payments reduced and stretched out over a longer period of time without any ability to increase your debt. They may or may not extend you that courtesy, but you don't get anything unless you ask. Failing that, without the benefit of numbers I would be at a loss to make further recommendations.

DEAR BRUCE: We have been fans for a long time. We're listing a house in Tampa, Fla., and we've been given an Exclusive Right of Sale Listing agreement. Do we need a lawyer to sell the house? The agreement is from a well-known national real estate company. Do we need a lawyer now or just at closing? Thanks so much for all the advice over the years. — Joe and Carol, Tampa, Fla.

DEAR JOE AND CAROL: In my judgment every real estate transaction requires the services of an attorney. You can be certain that the lenders will be represented, and the financing agency of the buyers if your home is being financed. What makes you believe that you are above all this? There are many things that can go wrong at a closing. At the very beginning in the transaction, since it will cost you no more, please see a real estate lawyer.

DEAR BRUCE: I am married and live in New Mexico. I have two grown children (57 and 61 years old). My wife has no children. In both of our names, we have two cars, credit cards and our home, which is paid off. My investments (mutual funds) are in my name with my wife as beneficiary. Each of us has a will that is signed and notarized. Would the will be considered valid as notarized? Is a will even necessary in our case? — I.S., New Mexico

DEAR I.S.: You say you have a will signed and notarized. Was this a do-it-yourself operation? If it was, I would urge you to see an attorney. Everyone needs a will. You think you have everything in your own names, and that very likely is sufficient. The problem is, if one of you passes away and there were some holes, you can't come back out of the grave and fix them. A will is necessary for every adult, naming a personal representative as executor. In the event that it's not necessary, the will can be filed but not probated. Do yourself and your heirs a favor, and have a proper will drawn up by a licensed attorney in your state.

Send your questions to: Smart Money, P.O. Box 2095, Elfers, FL 34680. E-mail to: bruce@brucewilliams.com.

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