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Seniors: Who’s Managing Your Debts?

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Fran Hansen seemed to be doing just fine. She had a mortgage and credit cards, and she “never missed a payment” on any of her cards and always “paid my mortgage on time faithfully!” a Credit.com reader using the screen name Fran Hansen said in a recent comment to the blog.

But Hansen’s children were worried. Their mother may have been making all of her payments, but her debt was high, with about $25,000 owed on multiple credit cards. With the average interest rate on credit cards at almost 17 percent, that meant Hansen was spending a sizable chunk of money every month simply paying the interest.

So her children took drastic measures. They enrolled Hansen with a credit counseling company, and they took away her credit cards. Now Hansen’s bills are paid in a lump sum every month, and the credit counseling company parcels it out to her various creditors.

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Free Credit Check ToolBut there appears to be a problem. One of her creditors sent her an email reminder saying that her payment is due.

“Is it possible they make all my payments late?” Hansen writes. “Will I have bad credit now?”

It’s easy to see why Hansen might be feeling a little out of control. From what she writes, it seems she doesn’t know exactly what’s going on. Is the bill due, or past due? Is the notification coming from the debt counseling company (which means all of her credit payments are in jeopardy), or is it from just one credit card?

Perhaps most important, if her bills are not being paid, which part of the system is breaking down? Is the problem with Hansen’s income, maybe with her bank’s computer that process the check from her employer or Social Security? Is it that her children failed to make the lump sum payment to the debt counseling company? Or maybe that the counseling company made a mistake?

“It sounds to me like she doesn’t know what’s going on,” says Charles Alkire, a financial planner who specializes in advising senior citizens. “She needs to find out.”

[Related Article: Protect Your Elderly Relative From Credit Card Fraud]

And since the problem may be with her kids, Hansen may not be able to turn to them to straighten out. If you’re like Hansen, and problems arise while you’re relying on your children, a credit counseling company or anyone else to manage your finances, here are three steps to minimize the damage and get back on track.

1) Hire a Lawyer. For someone facing large debts, especially on a fixed income, hiring an attorney may seem an extravagant expense. But spending a few hundred dollars now could save Hansen thousands of dollars in late fees and extra interest charges later, and it also could prevent her from losing her house. Any lawyer with experience in estate planning should be able to figure out quickly whether the problem here lies with Hansen’s income, her children or the credit counseling company.

2) Fire Somebody. If the problem is that the children didn’t make the payments on time, it’s probably time for Hansen to find someone else to manage her finances. If the credit counseling company made the mistake, it’s time to find a better one, ideally one run by a nonprofit group, Alkire says.

3) Autopay. Since Hansen has enough income to pay her bills, “this is the perfect case for autopay,” says Barry Paperno, Credit.com’s credit scoring expert. By going online to set up automated monthly payments from her bank account, Hansen will know she’ll never be late on a payment.

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Image: Borya, via Flickr

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