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What to Do About Dementia; Debt and Divorce

Our money expert answers your financial questions

Jane Bryant Quinn

Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert for AARP.

Q: My wife has early-onset dementia. When I call to ask about her retirement account or credit cards, the reps need her permission to speak with me, which she can't give. What should I do?

A:This is a powerful reminder of the need for a properly executed power of attorney. Had your wife given you her POA as soon as she got the diagnosis, you'd have the right to manage her affairs. It might not be too late, says Rebekah Brooker, an attorney with Scheef & Stone in Dallas. People with dementia often have good days as well as bad ones. On a good day, your wife could legally sign a power of attorney. If your wife doesn't have good days, your only option is the complexity of a legal guardianship.

Q: When I divorced 12 years ago, my ex agreed to pay the credit card debt but never did. I am being dunned for money I don't owe. How do I get this off my credit report?

A: Such a short question with so many issues! First, you, too, owed this debt because you're a joint account holder. A divorce agreement doesn't change that. You can't be sued for it because the statute of limitations has presumably run out. But the collection firm that owns your bad debt is still allowed to bill you, which is totally unfair. Unpaid debts should drop off your credit report after 7 1/2 years from the first missed payment. But the debt owner might not have told the credit bureau when to start the clock. Use the bureau's website to dispute the bills, says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center — not on the ground that your ex should pay (that won't work) but because they're stale. The bureau will check with the debt's owner, which should solve the problem.

Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert and author of  Making the Most of Your Money NOW.