Marquette Payton, Associate Retirement Director at Janus Henderson, offers strategies for minimizing potentially negative impacts to a credit score after a client experiences a life transition.
Divorce or widowhood is as much a financial hardship as an emotional one. A question that often comes up when I speak with clients who are going through these situations is, “How can getting divorced or becoming widowed affect my credit score?” Not surprisingly, these life transitions can have a significant impact on a client’s financial well-being.
Transitioning from a two-person household to one requires making major lifestyle adjustments, and credit scores are often overlooked in the midst of this turmoil. To help a client avoid making hasty decisions that could affect their financial security, here are four strategies to help minimize the impact to their credit scores.
- Get organized. Before you attempt to address the credit question, it is imperative to have a clear picture of a client’s current overall financial situation. Start by gathering documents related to financial obligations as well as insurance, taxes, retirement accounts, banking, investments and legal matters. Ideally, a client will have taken this step before the life transition event has occurred as part of their ongoing financial planning, but be prepared to perform at least some level of document gathering and organization.
- Make sure your client understands the importance of credit scores and credit reports. Credit scores may take a hit during a life transition, typically due to a drop in income or an increase in expenses that are no longer being split with a spouse.In some situations, creditworthiness may have been built under the name of only one spouse; in that case, your client may need to start building a credit history in order to meet the minimum standards required to establish a credit score. (The FICO scoring formula requires at least one recently-reported account opened more than six months ago.)
Additionally, lower credit scores may result in denied loan applications or having to pay high interest rates and extra fees – all of which can derail a client’s financial goals. Obtaining a current credit report is the best way to properly assess the situation. Remind clients that they can obtain one free credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) every 12 months.
- Pay bills on time. A third of one’s credit score is based on whether an individual pays bills on time, and all it takes is one missed payment to make a credit score drop. Work with your client to help ensure all their bills continue to be paid in a timely fashion. If an ex-spouse is responsible for a debt, it is beneficial to include an indemnity clause in the settlement, in the event of default.
- Make rational decisions about the family home. Often, there will be an emotional attachment to the family home following a life transition. Your client may want to remain in it, particularly if there are children involved. While the sentimental aspect cannot be avoided, your role is to take the lead on having a rational, in-depth discussion on the practical considerations of maintaining ownership of a house or property. A mortgage is typically a client’s largest expense, and the decisions made on this front could affect his or her ability to make on-time payments.
Ultimately, creating a comprehensive plan for your client that includes a detailed discussion about credit will provide the necessary backdrop to build a solid plan for their financial future.
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