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Money Talk: Consider Other Options Before Filing for Bankruptcy

Question : I’m a 33-year-old mother who lost my full-time job during the recession in 2009. I may have my “stuff” together again, but am considering filing bankruptcy.

Each month I’m spending almost half (yes half!) of my income on debt payments to credit cards, loans and medical bills. Each month after all my bills are paid and groceries are bought, I have zero dollars left over to save.

Even after losing my job, I made sure to always make those payments, so my credit is decent. Last I checked my credit score was hovering right around 700.

I really have no reason to have good credit at this time, as I don’t have any need for a large purchase. Should I file or pay back my debts? Is filing for bankruptcy a good idea if it allows me to build a savings account and start putting money back into a 401(k)?

Answer: A bankruptcy filing would devastate your credit scores, and that may create more problems than you think. Credit information is used by insurers to determine premiums, by landlords to evaluate applicants and by wireless carriers and utilities to set deposit requirements.

At the same time, it makes little sense to continue to struggle against a mound of debt if you’re not making a dent in the pile.

If it would take you five years or more to repay what you owe, you should at least consider filing for bankruptcy. Why five years? Because that’s how long you’d be required to make payments under a Chapter 13 repayment plan.

Most people, however, qualify for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy, which is typically preferable since it’s faster (three to four months, versus five years) and erases credit card and medical bills.

An experienced bankruptcy attorney can advise you and help you understand the ramifications of filing.

If lower interest rates might help you pay off your debt within five years, you also should consider an appointment with a credit counselor associated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org). These nonprofits can set you up with debt management plans that may offer lower rates on your credit card debt.

Most people feel an obligation to pay what they owe, but that often leads to fruitless struggles against impossible debts. Bankruptcy laws allow individuals a fresh start so that they can take care of themselves and their families. Among your many financial obligations is the one to support yourself in retirement, and every year you delay saving will make it that much harder to accumulate a reasonable nest egg.

Question : I am 64. I recently reviewed my Social Security summary online and saw that it does not have an accurate listing of my income, so the projections of my benefits aren’t accurate either. How do I correct these errors?

Answer: There are a number of ways the Social Security database could be wrong. An employer could have reported your earnings incorrectly or not at all. Or your earnings could have been reported using the wrong name or an incorrect Social Security number. If you married or divorced and changed your name, but failed to notify Social Security, that also could lead to errors in your record.

You can call the Social Security help line at (800) 772-1213 to start the process of correcting your records.

It would be best if you have proof of your earnings, such as W-2 forms, tax returns or pay stubs from the years in question.

If you don’t have such proof, the Social Security Administration asks that you provide as much information as possible about where you worked, the name of your employer(s), the dates you worked and how much you earned.

Your experience shows why it’s important to periodically review your Social Security records to make sure they’re accurate. This year the Social Security Administration will resume sending paper statements to certain workers (those aged 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, 50, 55 and 60), but in the meantime you can check your records online by signing up athttp://www.ssa.gov/mystatement/.

Liz Weston is the author of The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy. Questions for possible inclusion in her column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, Calif. 91604, or by email at liz@lizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.