Late Credit Card Payment Fees

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When I became a widow I had a credit score of 800.

My husband liked to sign up for credit cards.  At his death, there were 33 on his credit report. I started canceling the credit cards in his name. Of course, I was the second card holder on many of those cards.

As I talked to financial advisors, going to classes on financial management and credit, and started purchasing a house, I was advised to STOP CANCELING THE CREDIT CARDS – that it would have an adverse effect on my credit score. Fine. So I stopped. The credit cards are in a drawer. I really don’t know where my credit score is right now. Last time I checked (when I got the mortgage on my townhome) it had dropped to 760.  I suppose I should go to the bank and ask if my current mortgage holder will run another score for me.

Then today, when I picked up the mail, I had a letter from American Express that my last payment was late, and it had triggered the Penalty APR (27.24%). American Express has the fastest turn-around of all the cards/payments that I am required to make. After returning from our cruise in December, I realized that I was close to a late payment on AmEx, so called and made the payment on the phone. I also changed my address in their files.

Imagine my surprise when I got another bill at the old address, and the payment by phone was not recorded as timely.

Soooo…I called American Express.  On the letter where I received the notice of “late payment” there was a number to call to pay online.  However, they could not assist with my late penalty challenge.

So I called the number on the regular monthly bill I had received.  This card is the required Costco Amex. That bill actually had a “Customer Care and Billings” number listed. Please keep in mind that Costco is one of my favorite vendors. The stores are well run, their CEO takes a reasonable salary, the staff are well compensated. I was not surprised that there was a Customer Care number. And I was not disappointed.

After passing through three or four suggestions that I handle my business by computer, I actually was able to talk to a very polite, efficient and effective young man. I explained my challenge with the address change.  He confirmed that the new one was now the one of record, that the latest statement had still gone to the old address , but all future correspondence would be correct.  I also explained to him that as a new widow I was experiencing some challenges with creditors as the changes in address and primary account holder were being made. He could see that I had been a cardholder for sixteen years, and that my payment record was excellent.

Now here was the amazing part – I tried to pay the amount on the statement.  He could see that the prior statement had been paid, and that the only new charge was the $26 late payment fee.  He waived the fee, and confirmed that there was no current balance. He also confirmed that the 27.24% late penalty APR would not go into effect, and that no report would be made to the credit bureaus. It will be interesting to confirm that in the next month or so.

Through all this my little black kitty has been sitting beside me, walking across the keyboard, crawling over the shelves/printer, and making me laugh.  She just somehow knew that I needed some comic relief.

House Sale Price Incentive (Lower the Price)

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After having the house on the market for 12 weeks, it’s time to increase the buyer’s incentive by lowering the price.  I learned that if you change the price, the listing goes back up to the top of Multiple Listings – plus the potential buyers are encouraged by “bargain buying”.  We lowered the price from $350,000 to $339,900.  My Move Manager immediately noted that the decrease “looks bigger than it is”… a concept that would not have occurred to me, but is absolutely true.  By reducing it to $339,900 instead of $340,000, it gives the impression of a much lower price by putting it in the 330,000s group instead of the 340,000s group.  Now, at Christmas time, we are having our highest traffic level to date.  When I expressed my surprise, Mr. Manager stated that if large corporations are going to transfer families (by giving the employee a big job opportunity in another city), they will often give notice to the employee in October, so that they have time to travel to the new site over the Holidays with their families to scope out the possibilities.

As the weeks go by, my out-of-pocket costs related to the “empty” house on the market have stabilized, but are still at $1400 per month. Granted, this is all not real expense, because after living in the house for 25 years, most of the payments now go to capital rather than paying for interest.  I will get most of the money back when I sell the house. But, the cash out is still $1400, and I’m paying it out-of-pocket.  That was also a factor in “speeding up” the sale by reducing the price.

An interesting technology experience came from the real estate agent sending me an Agency Agreement Amendment through DocuSign. I was not able to make the signature function work on my Smart Phone (an Android). When I tried to add the signature, the next screen was blank, but it did fine through Gmail, and I was able to print it for my file after a little encouragement.

We will see how the latest “trick of the trade” affects the sale of my lovely old house.

The Non-Close

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Last week I was under a mistaken impression that I was about to close a mortgage loan on a new town home. The close date was set and the loaning bank had been selected through a logical process that included the fact that the bank was the mortgage holder on my “old” house.

However, as the loan package made its way through multiple levels of review, there were continuing questions on every “unusual” transaction.  Now, when your husband has just died , you are establishing retirement income,  you are applying for Social Security, insurance is coming in, you are changing insurance vendors, and your daughter is changing colleges, there are OFTEN unusual transactions.

But the big stumbling block became the fact that my debt to income ratio was too high.

I still have my family home and its mortgage (even though it has been paid down to less than a third of its value). There is the mortgage on the new town home, and I bought a new car (which I borrowed money to finance to get some credit in my name alone).  Therefore the total of those three payments is too high for the regular income I have from retirement and social security.

The “silliness” here is that there are also significant investment holdings which could totally pay ALL of the above loans. 

My frustration with this process was that there are MULTIPLE levels of review, nothing was changing through the process, and that ratio was imminently obvious from the first submission. I was not advised of the cancelation of the close until I had already traveled the five hours to the close location.

The town I am moving to is a small town – the largest part of the attraction after fighting rush hour traffic for many years.  Along with the smaller town is the establishment of personal relationships. The owner of the real estate firm acting as the agent for my new town home knew one of the loan officers at a regional bank, and suggested that I go talk to him. I had brought the loan package I had submitted to the larger banks with me after learning of this relationship.  So, after the introduction, and an interview related to my background and future plans, I left the three inch document stack with him.  A day later, after providing a few more pieces of information, he had run the numbers though his software, and said that he did not see a problem.  I have continued to say that if I need to pay off the car loan to improve the debt to income ratio, I will do so.

I left his office, and started back down the mountain.  Prior to leaving the new banker, I told the loan officer that I was now putting all my eggs in his basket.  From the car, I sent an email cancelling my application for mortgage loan from the prior entity (interestingly, I have received no acknowledgement of that email).  Now it will take another three weeks for this new package to make its way through the system. I have rented the townhome, and have time to plan the location of furniture prior to close. But I sure wish I had the loan in place. On to preparing the old home for sale.

The “Social Security Workshop”

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One of the important pieces of money management after a spouse dies is the coordination of both the husband’s and wife’s benefits.  I signed up for a workshop last Saturday that I hoped was going to explain (so that I could understand) how the coordination would work to the surviving spouse’s best advantage. The person offering the workshop was quite knowledgeable, but had a preprinted “booklet” and was using slides that had different material on them, so I was having a hard time keeping up with the details. After about an hour and a half I had pretty much decided that this was just another presentation that did not take the audience’s comprehension into consideration when presenting the material. Because I have some experience teaching adults, I find this especially frustrating.

But with thirty minutes to go, the presenter turned to the true topic of the entire two-hour presentation: A simplistic, extremely pessimistic financial model which shows the “baby boom” bankrupting the treasury resulting in the eventual loss of the Social Security System. His solution to this challenge is to invest in annuities! (ALL of your money in annuities that would survive the collapse of the Social Security System and a stock market major adjustment).

Now, I have to admit that this is one possible scenario with the tsunami of graying baby-boomers, but I was truly incensed that his ONLY offered solution was to purchase annuities which – wait for it – he happened to sell, and he would be glad to schedule an appointment before you left that day, adding “The appointments are going fast since the classes have been so well attended.”

This very topic is one that I have been reading about for a while, especially the Social Security portion since it will be an important part of my financial stability for the coming years (and I will write about it later when I feel I can present a balanced view of facts).

BUT I can ASSURE you that investing ONLY in annuities is NOT the answer.

There are many knowledgeable people providing excellent information to assist those of us who are retiring.  There are fewer people addressing the specific needs of widows, which is the reason I have entered on this project. But PLEASE be careful when someone offers “the only solution” to a complex problem.  Buyer Beware!!

 The Lawyer and Avoiding the Estate Account

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My husband and I were frugal throughout our careers, and always contributed to any plan that offered an employer contribution. He was a community college instructor, I worked with nonprofit organizations. We anticipated both of us living to the age of 80 (and beyond), so we saved our money anticipating 20 to 30 more years with income only from his teacher retirement, Social Security, and our savings. We have accumulated an amount that I assumed would throw me into an Estate Account requirement (for those who don’t know, if the deceased spouse has accrued more than $30,000 in separate assets, the surviving spouse generally must establish an Estate Account).

I applied to the IRS for a Tax ID number for said account. However, thanks to the guidance of my lawyer, that number will not be needed. Fortunately, we had set up all our financial assets (investment account and checking/savings accounts) as joint with right of survivorship, so all of the assets passed to me, avoiding the Estate.  The joint accounts also did not count toward the $30,000 “year’s allowance” for widows in my conservative Southern state.

In our state, the house also passes to the surviving spouse, not counting toward the “allowance” (providing husband and wife purchased the house as a couple). What I have left are three cars, my husband’s last paycheck (written after his death) and a few other small odds and ends.  I will have to take a trip to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, with a Death Certificate, to transfer title of two of our cars to my name – still not meeting the $30,000 threshold (the cars are quite ancient with very low market values).

This is a MUCH less arduous process than I initially anticipated – thinking I would have to set up an Estate checking account, leave it open for a year to satisfy claims against the Estate, and make a public declaration.

I also have a great lawyer: a young woman who is generous and efficient with her time, even returning part of the initial fees she collected as “not utilized”.

There is yet another benefit of our relationship.  The second week after my husband died I had the substantive meeting with her (please note that I called her at 9:00 AM the morning after he died for specific guidance on anything that needed to be done immediately, which she provided, graciously.  It was Sunday morning). My late-twenty-something niece was visiting, so she accompanied me to the meeting with the lawyer.  My niece is in one of the longer-term arrangements common to young people.  She and her boyfriend co-habit an apartment, but there is absolutely no legal commitment/relationship between the two. When we left the meeting with our lawyer, her first comment was “now I see why people get married.” An astute observation.

Menacing Medical Bills

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This morning was an amazingly positive experience. After talking with a cousin that assists with insurance challenges, I attacked the four medical bills for my husband’s fatal heart attack –  LabCorp, cardiologist, ambulance, hospital – about $5000 outstanding. After making it through all the telephone trees, I was able to talk to a person on the first call with all of them except the hospital.  There, I had to wait for a return call, then navigate another phone tree to finally talk to a person. Altogether, it took about an hour for the process with the four bills. Thankfully, my husband’s insurance seems to be paying everything in two tiers.  He was a state employee, and Blue Cross was the primary payer.  AND, because he was over 65, Medicare was the secondary payer. Prior to this morning, none of the billing entities knew about the Medicare. Between the two insurers, what I heard today was that there will be no outstanding balance once Medicare makes their payments. Unfortunately, when my husband died, we also lost our health insurance.  The only way that my 23-year-old daughter and I were able to get reasonably priced coverage was through the Affordable Care Act. My husband was with the same employer for 32 years, while I changed every two or three years to work in nonprofits with infrastructure challenges. Through the Act we have gotten excellent, reasonably priced coverage . The one negative outcome is dental insurance.  We have the best dentist in the country and I am not willing to give that practice up to use one available through the Affordable Care Act. I have decided to stay with our great dentist (for 20 years) and gamble that there will be no major catastrophic event. This process has shown itself to be a continuation of the uncanny coincidences and positive experiences that have happened since I became widowed.

Interviewing Financial Advisers

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One person that I hope to find is an adviser that is honestly interested in assisting women to take charge of their assets, whether they are financial, real estate, or other property. This would involve some sort of tool that, with a minimum of detailed input, would give the client a good feel for the assets she holds,  their true value, and their liquidity. Then when a decision about purchases, investments, or sales was required, she would be able to make it with a complete picture of what that would mean to her over an extended period of time. If she had to raise cash, she would have already planned for its source, anticipated when those needs might occur, and their true cost in the short and long term. So far, I have met with three different representatives, presenting them with this challenge.  It will be interesting to see what results my search yields!