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Joint Accounts Can Hurt Spouse Credit Scores

Question: I just finished paying off my last credit card and checked my credit report as I am now separated from my wife. I found we had one joint account that she had not been paying. There are two stretches of five months each of no payment.

I immediately called up the creditor and paid off the balance and the creditor closed the account due to the lack of payments. This one account killed my credit score. I also found two old accounts on my credit report that are both still active but I have not used them for years. Both accounts are in good standing.

I was thinking that if I started using the accounts again, paying them off each month, it would boost my credit score faster. I am looking to buy a house this summer and would have an easier time with a better score. Do you think using the old accounts would help improve my score faster or do you think my score would be better if I closed those accounts?

Answer: Closing accounts can’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. You should avoid closing any credit account when you’re trying to improve your credit rating.

Your experience shows why it’s so important to separate financial accounts when you’re separating from a spouse. Failure to pay any joint account can hurt both parties’ scores. This would be true even if you were divorced and had a divorce decree making her responsible for the debt. Your creditors don’t have to pay attention to such agreements.

Lightly using a few credit cards can help you recover from missteps like this one. “Lightly” means charging 10% or less of their credit limits, and you should pay the balances in full each month, since carrying credit card debt doesn’t help your scores. You shouldn’t expect your scores to bounce back overnight, however. If you had good scores before this incident, it may take you a few years to recover completely.

Question: In a recent column, you answered a question from someone who had started receiving Social Security benefits at 62. You mentioned the many advantages of delaying the start of Social Security checks until full retirement age but then said, “In your case, it’s too late for second thoughts anyway.”

Why didn’t you mention the option of repaying all the Social Security checks you’ve received and then restarting your benefit at a higher amount, based on your age? I first learned about that option from one of your columns a few years ago, and actually did it. It sure worked out great for me. Viewed as purchasing a fixed annuity in the amount I paid back, I’ve been getting about a 9.5 percent annual return. Thanks so much for alerting me to that option!

Answer: The payback option was indeed a good one for people who regretted starting their benefits early and who had the means to pay back everything they’d received from the program. This “do over” allowed them to lock in a higher benefit amount for themselves and for their surviving spouses. In essence, they were able to “invest” the money they paid back and get a higher return than they could get from any other safe investment.

Unfortunately, after the payback option started receiving a lot of publicity, the Social Security Administration decided in 2010 to end it. So it’s no longer possible to correct the mistake if you start benefits too early unless you do so within the first year after applying.

This just underscores why it’s so important to research and understand your options before you apply for Social Security. Good resources include the AARP website, which has an easy-to-use retirement planner, and the book Social Security for Dummies by Jonathan Peterson. Another resource is the “Maximize My Social Security” calculator developed by economist Laurence Kotlikoff at www.maximizemysocialsecurity.com. For $40, the calculator will allow you to play with different scenarios and show you which options will increase your lifetime benefits.

Question: I am receiving many unsolicited credit card offers in the mail and am worried about identity theft. Do you know of a phone number or Web address whereby I can opt out of these offers?

Answer: You can call 1-888-5OPTOUT or visit www.optoutprescreen.com to remove your name from marketing lists that the three credit bureaus sell to credit card issuers. Opting out won’t keep every card solicitation out of your mailbox, but it should decrease substantially the number of offers you receive. You can opt out for five years or permanently, but you need to be prepared to give your Social Security number, since that’s one of the key ways the bureaus identify you in their records.

Liz Weston is the author of the new book Deal with Your Debt . Questions may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.