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What’s his, what’s hers

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When divorcing partners divide their assets, the split isn’t always as fair as it first appears. Here’s what you need to know.

Two weeks after his divorce, Phil Doughty received a blunt letter from his ex-wife’s lawyer. It informed him he’d contravened his settlement by not giving his ex her $100,000 share of his pension within 10 days of the divorce.

“It was a knockdown punch,” says the retired teacher from Montreal. “I had no idea I had to pay her right away, or that the money would come directly out of my pension fund.” Doughty thought his ex would simply get a share of his benefit after he stopped working. “I’d never heard of a company taking money out of a pension eight years before retirement.”

With his pension fund depleted, Doughty’s monthly cheques were reduced by over a third when he eventually retired, yet he was still required to pay spousal support from what remained, leaving him strapped. “I had to find another lawyer to help me get out of those support payments I couldn’t afford anymore.”

Doughty (we’ve changed his name, and those of all the featured subjects in this article) believes his pension arrangement should have been handled differently—at the very least it should have been explained to him properly. “I guess it was just something the lawyers worked out between them,” he says. “My lawyer and I never really talked about the pension.”

It seems hard to believe a lawyer would not talk to a client about how such an important asset would be divided, but Doughty insists he would have remembered such a conversation. His situation is just one example of how partners frequently get divorced without understanding all the financial implications.

“Divorce changes a person’s financial situation dramatically and often there is no planning for it,” says Debbie Hartzman, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst in Kingston, Ont., and co-author of Divorce Isn’t Easy, But It Can Be Fair. (CDFAs are planners with additional training in the financial impact of separation and divorce. See “Where to get help,” at the bottom of this page.) “I’ve had clients say things like, ‘I just spent four years fighting with my ex, I have this cheque for $400,000, and I have no idea what that means in terms of my financial future.’”

Surely part of a lawyer’s job entails discussing financial matters surrounding divorce. Apart from custody of children, aren’t money and property the big issues in divorce? “A family lawyer’s job includes giving advice about a number of financial issues, but we are not financial analysts,” says Bruce Clark, who observed many divorce-related financial problems during his 35-year career as a family lawyer in Toronto.

Lawyers may not anticipate the long-term implications of divorce-related financial matters. For example, Hartzman explains it’s possible to have different divisions of assets that all meet the 50/50 requirements of the law but have profoundly different financial consequences for the divorcing partners. Her book includes a case study that presents different ways to legally divide the assets of a middle-class couple. Both are 58 years old, and the largest assets are the house and pensions (his is four times more valuable than hers). In one scenario, the assets are split more or less equally, so the initial net worth of the two partners is about the same. However, her share of the man’s pension is paid out as a lump sum, and the support payments are not structured to reflect the fact his post-retirement income will be higher than hers. As a result, after age 65 the woman’s net worth and monthly cash flow flatline, while the man’s relative financial situation steadily improves. “The person with the pension can end up in a much better financial position than the person with the house, particularly if the pension is indexed to inflation,” says Jim Doyle, a CDFA with Investors Group in Vancouver.

Here’s a different scenario: she keeps the house and gets only a quarter of his pension. To the untrained eye that seems to be simply an alternative way of dividing the pie equally. Yet this arrangement ensures the woman’s net worth stays similar to the man’s for the rest of their lives, without diminishing his financial situation.

Of course, case studies do not translate into rules that ensure ideal financial arrangements for every divorcing couple. That’s why it’s a good idea to consult a financial professional as well as a lawyer if you’re going through divorce or separation.

Don’t assume every asset must be split down the middle. “People often want to split up each individual asset, but not all assets are created equal. It’s usually better to look at assets in terms of how to divide the whole cake,” says Hartzman.

Pinched pensions

Doughty is not the first divorced person to be subject to pension shock. Many people don’t even realize pensions have to be shared after divorce, says Clark. “In my experience, most people consider their pensions to be their personal property, as opposed to an asset that must be shared equally after a divorce. In a longer-term marriage the pension is often the single biggest asset.”

This was the case for Doughty and his ex-wife, who had sold their matrimonial home shortly before separating. By law his ex-wife was entitled to half the teacher’s pension that accumulated during their marriage.

“Pensions are very, very complicated assets,” says Sharon Numerow, a CDFA and divorce mediator with Alberta Divorce Finances in Calgary. “Defined benefit pensions must be independently valued by an actuary, and the rules about paying out a spouse vary from province to province.” For example, in Alberta there are no longer any provincial pension plans that allow monthly payouts to an ex-spouse when the member spouse retires. Therefore, the only option is to give the ex-spouse a designated value that is transferred into a Locked-In Retirement Account or LIRA (called a locked-in RRSP in some provinces). “This almost always has to be done after the separation agreement is signed, and not usually at retirement,” says Numerow.

On the other hand, Ontario recently adjusted its Family Statute Law in the opposite direction. Now a portion of a person’s pension payments can be made directly to an ex-spouse after retirement. Another possibility is for the spouse without the pension to get another asset equal to the value.

Bottom line, don’t underestimate the potential for misunderstanding pension division. It’s important to work with your lawyer to understand the legal issues, then talk to a financial planner who can help you appreciate the short-, medium- and long-term implications of the division of this and your other assets.

Close to home

Another key, says Hartzman, is determining whether it’s viable for one partner to stay in the family home. There are two main questions: Can one partner actually afford to keep the home? And how will keeping the home affect that person’s financial future?

“Most people I’ve worked with live in houses that require two incomes, so after divorce one person would be trying to maintain the home on half as much income, and often it just isn’t affordable,” Hartzman says. “Can you imagine how hard it is to tell someone already going through the emotional turmoil of divorce that they can’t afford to stay in the family home they and their children are so attached to?”

Sandra Baron, an Ottawa mother of two, did manage to stay in the matrimonial home after her divorce. A financial planner helped her figure out how to pull this off. “My first lawyer really didn’t seem to understand my financial situation,” Baron explains. “I went to see a financial planner and asked if I could afford to buy out the matrimonial home from my husband. He helped me work it out.”

Baron and her spouse had always lived within their means. They had no debt other than a mortgage with much lower principal than they qualified for. That, combined with support payments and Baron’s earning potential (she had been an at-home parent most of her marriage but began doing contract work after the divorce), meant she was able to keep the family home.

The financial planner also gave Baron some tax-saving advice on how to invest some money she had brought into the marriage. Since she had that money before the marriage and kept it in a separate account, it was not an asset that had to be shared equally. However, had she used that money to help pay down the mortgage, it would have become part of the value of the matrimonial home and therefore a joint asset.

This is also the case if one spouse receives an inheritance or gift during the marriage. In most provinces, as long as the money is kept in a separate account it does not have to be divided equally after a divorce. But if it is used to purchase a joint asset, such as a house, it becomes the property of both spouses. (In some jurisdictions growth in the value of the inheritance or gift may count as an asset to be shared.)

Perhaps the biggest factor in Baron’s situation was that she and her husband actually saved money for their separation. “It was almost five years from the time we realized the marriage was likely not able to be repaired that we saved for the eventual separation. Unless the relationship was harmful, I felt it was in the best interest of everyone—particularly the children, who are all that really mattered in the end—to plan and wait so things would be better for them financially.”

It’s a safe bet the path Baron and her ex-husband took is not typical of divorcing couples. Obviously they got along well, even after deciding to separate; they had no debts other than the mortgage and were both well acquainted with their family financial situation. The opposite is much more likely, says Numerow. “It’s common for one partner to know very little about the family finances, and they often don’t know the extent of their debts.”

Lady in red

When Anna Masters, of Taber, Alta., separated from her husband she moved in with her sister and started a new job at a bank. She also applied for a new credit card through that bank, so the person doing the credit check was one of her colleagues. When the Equifax credit report came through, the coworker quietly asked Masters to step into her office. “You are behind in all your bills and credit cards. Most of them are in collections,” the embarrassed colleague said.

“I was horrified,” says Masters. “Even the cell phone bills weren’t paid. I didn’t even know my ex had his own cell phone.”

That’s not the worst of it. Masters’ ex-husband had a line of credit she didn’t know about it, which listed her as a co-signer. Masters says he must have forged her signature on the application.

It’s not hard to find similar tales of woe. Alan Leclair of Winnipeg tried to remortgage his house not long before he and his wife split up. “When the credit check came in the banker said to me, ‘You’ve got debts you didn’t tell me about. You’d better go home and talk to your wife about it,’” says Leclair. These debts were considerable—between $30,000 and $40,000 in unpaid credit card balances. Fortunately, Leclair’s ex-wife eventually agreed to take responsibility for them.

Masters was less fortunate. She got stuck with a big chunk of debt—loans and credit cards her husband was supposed to pay off, but didn’t—as well as the line of credit he’d fraudulently put her name on. “I could only get part-time work at the bank, but I worked every other junk job I could find. It took me three years, but I paid off my share, and in a way I’m glad I went through the experience. I’m in control of my finances now,” Masters says.

The one smart thing Masters feels she did in the lead-up to her separation was to start setting aside money (“Omigod money,” she called it) so she’d have something to fall back on in an emergency. “Even before I realized the full extent of the financial mess we were in, I knew my ex was spending irresponsibly, so I started squirreling money away.” That money—about $3,500, which she kept in a sock hidden under a pile of towels in the linen closet—ended up being used to cover her living expenses during a spell of unemployment after moving to a new town after she was separated.

Leclair did something similar. “I had a friend who was going through a divorce and I asked him for advice. He said, ‘Put a few bucks away.’ So I did.” He hid cash in his house and even left about $500 at a friend’s house. “When the separation happened I was in scramble mode, dealing with all kinds of things. It was comforting to at least know that money was there,” he says.

Clark, the family lawyer, explains any money you stash prior to separation “will still be subject to division, but you will have the use of it while property issues are being sorted out. There is nothing illegal about this as long as you declare the amounts you have put aside.”

Other eye-openers

It’s hardly surprising that people have trouble working through issues like asset division and debt. But the path to divorce is laden with other potential financial mistakes.

One is trying to settle too fast. “People want it settled tomorrow,” says Jim Doyle, the financial planner. “Emotions often determine the choices rather than making the numbers make sense. I say to people, ‘Let’s slow down and do the math.’” He says it’s common for partners to make hasty, ill-advised decisions about asset splitting just to avoid conflict. “Sometimes in relationships where there is an imbalance of power, one person might simply capitulate, resulting in a financial decision that may have negative consequences down the road.”

Don’t ignore the tax implications. “One of the biggest items that is often overlooked in separation and divorce agreements is tax deductions, such as child-care expenses, and credits that may apply to separated and divorced parents,” says Numerow. For example, a divorced parent can claim one child as a dependent, but both parents cannot claim the same child.

Another dangerous road is trading property for time with children. “Big mistake—just don’t do it,” says Numerow. In addition, remember that spousal or child support and asset division are, for the most part, completely separate issues.

Finally, if you’re a common-law spouse, don’t assume the process is the same as it is for married couples. Generally, legal requirements regarding spousal and child support are the same, provided a couple has been living common-law for at least two years (three in some provinces). However, the division of assets is not automatic, as it is in a marriage, which comes as a surprise to many people, Numerow says. “Go to a lawyer and find out what you do and don’t have to share. Laws concerning common-law separations vary by province.”

One message Clark, Numerow and Hartzman all want to get across is this: both partners should always be aware of the family’s financial situation. If one partner is more hands-on with the money, the other at least needs to understand the big picture. “I’ve met a lot of spouses who weren’t involved in the finances and they’re ashamed,” says Numerow. “I tell them, ‘Don’t beat yourself up over it. Now is the time to begin your learning.’ However, if both partners were on top of the family finances it would make divorce a lot easier.”—written by John Hoffman

Where to get help

Certified Divorce Financial Analysts usually charge between $175 and $250 per hour. “If people do their homework and bring in all the relevant financial information, we can usually get a fairly good handle on the situation in two hours,” says CDFA and author Debbie Hartzman. “For an individual, it usually takes no more than three hours overall. With couples it usually takes three sessions of an hour or an hour-and-a-half each.” She notes that a better understanding of your financial situation can save your lawyer’s time, which is much more expensive.

To find a CDFA, do a web search for your town and CDFA, or visit the website of the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts (www.institutedfa.com) and search by city, town or area code.

Source: MoneySense.ca – by  

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How Canadian homes became debt traps

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Source: MoneySense.ca – by   November 13th, 2017

Houses have become another debt-laden income-stream for Canadians

In 1998, Ann bought a one-bedroom condo in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver. Gainfully employed at a printing company, she found the monthly mortgage payments were within her budget (Ann and others quoted in this story asked that Maclean’s not use their full names). The building was on the older side, and eventually she got the itch to update the decor. She intended to replace only her bathroom sink; she ended up renovating the entire bathroom. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, now that I’ve started…’ ” The kitchen came next, then the living room and finally the bedroom. Ann thought the renos, funded partly on credit and spaced out over a few months, would boost her condo’s value. She also wanted to keep up with her neighbours. “Everyone was doing something,” she says.

Finances became tight afterwards, and she only paid the minimum on her credit card each month. Every year, her condo fees rose while her salary at the printing company (where she still works) stagnated. She began relying on credit for everyday expenses, and later took out a second card.

Soon, one of her banks began calling with a solution to help manage her debt. She ignored the inquiries, preferring not to think about her finances, but she started to feel desperate: “I just wanted to do something, and that was the only thing coming my way.” The bank offered a loan at a low rate to pay off her high-interest credit card debt, and she ended up taking out a second mortgage for $80,000. The interest rate still wasn’t manageable. “It was a huge mistake,” she says.

Saddled with two mortgages, rising condo fees and a flat income, she continued relying on credit cards. Surprise expenses, such as dental work, added to her debt. Embarrassment kept her from seeking help. Three years ago, she decided to sell her condo. Despite Vancouver’s booming market, the sale didn’t solve Ann’s financial problems. She moved in with a friend and was able to pay off her mortgages, but she couldn’t make much of a dent in her credit card debt.

This year, Ann turned 64. She was carrying $70,000 in debt, and knew she couldn’t work another decade to pay it down. That realization prompted her to seek help, and she eventually met with an insolvency trustee. Earlier this year, Ann’s trustee filed a consumer proposal on her behalf. Less severe than personal bankruptcy, a proposal is an offer to all of an individual’s creditors to pay a portion of debt under a strict plan over a maximum of five years. The remainder is discharged. Creditors typically agree to these arrangements since they are guaranteed to recoup at least some of their money. For Ann, filing a proposal came as a relief. “I actually feel like I can breathe again,” she says.

Other Canadians are still suffocating. Earlier this year, the household debt-to-income ratio hit another record of 167.8 per cent. A long period of abnormally low interest rates has enabled Canadians to carry massive debts, since monthly payments appear manageable. Further, in cities with rising home values, particularly Toronto and Vancouver, homeowners can secure a home equity line of credit (HELOC) to pay other debts or simply fund their lifestyles. Last spring, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada warned that the increased use of HELOCs “may lead Canadians to use their homes as ATMs, making it easier for them to borrow more than they can afford.”

Insolvencies, though, are rare. As of the end of July, there were nearly 123,000 consumer proposals and personal bankruptcies filed by Canadians this year, a decline of 1.2 per cent from the same period last year. That might be a sign of fiscal prudence, but it’s also the result of record low interest rates that ease debt-carrying costs. Scott Terrio, an insolvency estate administrator and president of Debt Savvy in Toronto, calls this phenomenon “extend and pretend.” Canadians can extend their debt repayment terms and pretend to live a lifestyle they can’t otherwise obtain. He sees it all the time—couples with decent jobs carrying large mortgages, and putting daycare, cars and vacations on credit.

Some reach a trigger moment when they can no longer pretend—a job loss, say, or divorce or illness. But lately Terrio has noticed a change in his business. More clients are coming in because they’re simply tapped out. As with Ann in Vancouver, there is no trigger. “It’s a gradual realization for some people,” Terrio says. “They can’t do it anymore.” Lana Gilbertson, an insolvency trustee in Vancouver, has seen the same change. “Nowadays, they have jobs, they’re making money, they’re plugging along, but they’re just in over their heads,” she says.

The cost of borrowing is set to rise, adding strain to households. The Bank of Canada hiked rates twice this year, signalling more could be coming—depending, in part, on whether households can handle it. Economists at TD Bank Group believe two more rate hikes are likely next year. That will cause rates on everything from lines of credit to car loans to mortgages to tick up. At the same time, house prices are not rising as quickly as they once were in many Canadian cities. RBC Economics forecasts home prices in Canada will increase 11.1 per cent this year—and just 2.2 per cent in 2018. Canadians won’t be able to pull cash out of their homes so easily to get themselves out of trouble. “The insolvency business is cyclical, and we’re at least a year overdue for shedding blood in the system,” Terrio says. “If ever we were poised to hit that right on the head, it’s now.”

For some Canadians who struggle with debt, the problem can be traced back to real estate. In a survey TD released in September, 56 per cent of respondents from across Canada were willing to exceed their budget by up to $50,000 to purchase a home. At the same time, 97 per cent of homeowners said they wished they’d factored in other obligations before buying, such as property taxes, maintenance costs and “overall lifestyle expenses.”

The problem is not confined to Toronto or Vancouver, where huge price gains have enticed buyers to stretch themselves for fear of getting permanently priced out. In Regina, Joshua and his wife purchased a house in 2014 when expecting their first child. Both 24 years old at the time, they carried about $35,000 in debt between them, mostly tied to student loans. “We rushed into getting a house because we just thought it would be the right thing to do,” Joshua says. “It almost felt wrong to be renting and having a kid.” (Joshua’s mom pressured them to buy, too.) In one weekend, they viewed 16 houses. The very last one felt right. They put down five per cent and moved in.

But the couple was blindsided by maintenance costs. Their furnace needed repairs, and they later had to replace the water heater, which set them back hundreds of dollars. After expenses, the pair has virtually no cash to put toward their debt. Joshua’s card is maxed out, and his wife’s card is close to the limit. Joshua says they’re frugal (splurging means going to Subway) and live paycheque to paycheque. The situation became worse this year. His wife is on maternity leave with their second child and their variable mortgage rate ticked up. “Just the way the rate is fluctuating is killing us,” Joshua says, who works in sales at a telecommunications firm. “It can’t keep changing like this.”

Staring down tens of thousands of dollars in debt, rising mortgage costs and no foreseeable way to substantially boost their incomes, the couple decided to sell their house and rent. They’re not expecting a windfall. A while back, their basement flooded and they used the insurance money to repair the foundation. The basement had been finished, but there’s no cash to renovate it, so it will be sold in “as is” condition. The market in Regina is also soft, and the average home price is down slightly from 2014. Joshua hopes to at least get his down payment back, and their financial situation should improve when his wife returns to work as a massage therapist. “We’ll be able to really hack away at our debt,” he says, “but it’s going to take years.”

While real estate has led to financial distress for some Canadians, it’s been a saviour for others. The home equity line of credit has allowed millions of households to borrow against their properties, providing cash for everything from renovations to investing to debt consolidation. HELOCs have been around in Canada since the 1970s, but in the mid-1990s, lenders started marketing them to a wider swath of consumers. Between 2000 and 2010, HELOC balances soared from $35 billion to $186 billion, according to the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, an average annual growth rate of 20 per cent.

The pace of growth has slowed since then, but balances still hit $211 billion last year. Lenders have been all too eager to dole out HELOCs, creating the perception of instant, easy money. An animated commercial for Alpine Credits, a lender in B.C., features a room full of employees rubber-stamping loans—even for a client who wants to install a four-storey waterslide. (The employees celebrate by cheering while one pops open champagne and another tears off his shirt.)

One common use of HELOCs is to pay off higher-interest debt. Last year, according to Scotiabank, Canadians used $11.6 billion (or 28 per cent of HELOC withdrawals) for debt consolidation. Doug Hoyes, a founder of licensed insolvency trustee Hoyes, Michalos & Associates, has witnessed the shift. The firm has offices across Ontario and in 2011, roughly one-third of the firm’s clients owned a home when they filed for bankruptcy or a consumer proposal. Last August, just six per cent of insolvent consumers were homeowners. “You don’t need to file a proposal to pay off your debt,” he says. “You just go out and get a second mortgage.”

If the pace of home price appreciation slows down—or worse, prices drop—there will be consequences for households that have been piling on debt. The slowdown in the southwestern Ontario real estate market is already creating stress. Hoyes recently saw a couple who purchased a home four years ago and accumulated $70,000 in unsecured debt. They bought furniture, hired landscapers and borrowed to finance a swimming pool. Before the slowdown, the couple might have earned $100,000 by selling their home. Now they might get $70,000, which would barely cover their debts. They’re also reluctant to sell and move to a different neighbourhood. And because of the softening in the market, they haven’t been able to find a lender willing to issue them a HELOC large enough to cover their unsecured debt. Their solution? Convince one set of parents to take out a second mortgage, and borrow from them. “It’s the bank of mom and dad,” Hoyes says.

And while debt consolidation is an effective strategy if consumers don’t fall back on bad habits, Terrio says recidivism is a problem. “They go ka-ching out of their house and pay off their credit card debts, but they go and run up their cards again,” he says.

Borrowing against her home wasn’t enough for Charis Sweet-Speiss to pull herself out of debt. A registered nurse, she divorced and moved from Ottawa to Oliver, B.C., a town south of Kelowna, in 1998. Her then-boyfriend (now husband) wasn’t working at the time, and the couple used the divorce settlement to start building a new life; they bought a used car, a place to live and furniture. “Then that money was gone, so I just started using credit cards,” she says. “And it was so easy.” Their debt started building, and their income wasn’t sufficient to pay more than the minimum. New credit cards she’d never asked for arrived in the mail, and Sweet-Speiss started using them. She had 13 on the go at once, and eventually they were all maxed out. “I’ve always been employed. I make a good salary. But just paying the minimum every month was a lot of money,” she says. Every six months, she phoned each credit card company to wheedle them into reducing her interest rate. She caught some breaks, but never enough to make a big difference: “It was a horrible way to live.”

Sweet-Speiss says she wasn’t frivolous with her spending, but in retrospect, she made questionable decisions. When her daughter would run up a large balance on her own credit card, Sweet-Speiss sent her money—even though it meant sinking deeper into debt herself. Sweet-Speiss borrowed against her home at one point and withdrew money on two separate occasions to consolidate her debt, but was still left with $40,000 on her cards, and it built up again.

After more than a decade of amassing debt, Sweet-Speiss turned to the Credit Counselling Society for help ridding herself of nearly $67,000 spread across 13 cards. Once enrolled, her interest payments stopped and she was put on a plan to pay down principal. She completed the program this year. She still has a mortgage and a line of credit, but is finally free of high-interest credit card debt.

Sweet-Speiss says her mortgage would have been paid off a decade ago had she never borrowed against her house. Indeed, one of the problems with home-equity loans is that they cause debt persistence. HELOCs are marketed with little or no obligation to repay in a timely manner. For years, one of the main advantages of owning a home is the forced saving effect—paying the mortgage, combined with rising property values, builds equity. A HELOC undermines that dynamic, tempting consumers to access cash now rather than build wealth over the long term.

It marks a fundamental shift in the way Canadians think about homeownership. “Whatever happened to getting to the end of a mortgage and owning your home?” says Gilbertson, the trustee in Vancouver. “It’s less about truly owning our homes today and more about having another revenue stream to fund our lifestyles.”

That Canadians are carrying record amounts of debt is not in dispute. But the magnitude of the problem is contested. “I think the fears are overstated,” says Paul Taylor, CEO of Mortgage Professionals Canada. “Canadians are incredibly prudent, and history will show that.” As the head of an industry association for mortgage lenders, brokers and insurers, Taylor isn’t exactly impartial on the issue. But he points to a report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer released earlier this year showing that, since 2009, the debt service ratio—a measure of income spent to pay debt—has remained steady at around 14 per cent, not much higher than the long-term average. That’s a sign that even though we have more debt than 20 years ago, we’re not overextending ourselves, Taylor says.

But the same PBO report projects the debt service ratio will rise to an all-time high of 16.3 per cent by the end of 2021. Taylor says the premise is a “little bit flawed” because it presumes Canadians will make no changes to their finances owing to higher interest rates. “I’m certain people will become prudent again to ensure they retain that [historical] expense ratio,” he says. Already, brokers have been fielding calls from Canadians about locking in their mortgages to guard against future increases, for example.

Bank of Montreal chief economist Douglas Porter also contends that too much emphasis is placed on the debt-to-income ratio. “We have long been of the view that much of the commentary on this topic has been overwrought,” he wrote in a research note this month. The savings rate is close to the 25-year average of five per cent, which doesn’t point to a consumer debt apocalypse. Rather, Porter expects spending to “gradually moderate” as borrowing costs rise.

Still, numerous surveys show Canadians are worryingly close to the edge. A report from MNP Ltd., an insolvency trustee, released in October found 42 per cent of Canadians said they don’t think they can cover basic expenses over the next year without going deeper into debt. An earlier survey this summer found 77 per cent of respondents would have trouble absorbing an additional $130 per month in interest payments. And as organizations such as the IMF and the OECD have constantly warned, high household debt renders the country far more vulnerable to economic shocks.

When a downturn does hit, even a high income won’t necessarily provide enough protection. Gene moved from the U.S. to Calgary 12 years ago to take a job with a major oil company, earning more than $300,000 annually. He purchased a home for close to $1 million and supported his wife, two kids and mother-in-law. In 2015, Gene lost his job when the price of oil crashed, and was out of work for nine months. He took out a home equity loan for $30,000 to make ends meet, and eventually found another job at a pipeline company, but for half his previous salary. A six-figure income would be more than enough for most Canadians, but Gene and his family were accustomed to their lifestyle. The kids were enrolled in extracurricular activities, and housing costs added up to $4,100 every month.

A year later, Gene was laid off again. “It was just devastating for us,” he says, adding that he began questioning his self-worth if he was unable to provide for his family. He eventually found another job, but at a still smaller salary. On top of the mortgage and the line of credit, Gene had another $20,000 loan. When he first purchased his house, he didn’t quite hit the 20 per cent down payment threshold; his bank offered him a loan to cover the difference. He had a couple thousand in credit card debt and a small, high-interest loan from EasyFinancial he’d taken to cover an unexpected medical expense for a family member. Finally, he faced a $90,000 tax bill, since he opted not to pay after he lost his job. Gene sought help from an insolvency trustee earlier this year. “I just wasn’t making enough money, and I had to protect the family,” he says. Gene submitted a consumer proposal, but one of his creditors rejected the terms. In October, Gene filed for bankruptcy—just over two years after making a salary most Canadians can only dream of.

This sort of precariousness worries some experts, who fear wider implications for the Canadian economy. “We continue to see the household sector as accident-prone, with a complacency toward debt which could prove disruptive to the economy,” wrote HSBC Canada’s chief economist recently. The result is Canada is at “some risk” of a balance sheet recession—a period of slow growth or decline caused by consumers saving and paying down debt rather than spending. David Madani, an economist with Capital Economics in Toronto, doubts the growth Canada has seen in exports recently will be enough to offset the decline in consumer spending. “Canadian policy-makers have allowed household debt to rise above the disturbingly high levels reached in the U.S. in 2007, raising the risk of a similar potentially disastrous deleveraging down the road,” Madani wrote.

Statements like that could be dismissed as fear-mongering, but the reality is Canada hasn’t been in this situation before, and the outcome is impossible to predict. Canadians ignored warnings from policymakers about piling on debt for years because low interest rates were too enticing. Now households will have no choice but to dial it back. The only question is how bad the fallout will be.

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10 most common bankruptcy myths

 

“The Act permits an honest debtor, who has been unfortunate…” to “…make a fresh start…”.

So reads page two of the 1,841 page annotated Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act (BIA) regarding a person who files bankruptcy. The legal process of bankruptcy effectively assumes one’s ‘innocence’ and is intended to be financially rehabilitative rather than punitive in nature. The days of debtor’s prisons have been assigned to the scrapheap of history.

Yet bankruptcy—and legal insolvency generally—is one of the more mercurial and misunderstood areas of personal finance. Recently I wrote an article arguing that unsustainable debt loads have become the new normal in Canada, in which I drew on my first hand experience with people struggling with debt trouble. As such, I have personally met with thousands of clients and have fielded every type of question imaginable about debt, assets, income, investments, businesses, taxes and just about anything else you could conjure up.

Myths about bankruptcy abound. Licensed insolvency trustees and their staff, such as ours, spend a lot of time dispelling misinformation when we are asked about what is involved with bankruptcy.

From what I’ve seen there are three possible explanations for the myths that exist about bankruptcy. Firstly, the majority of people will simply never have any personal involvement with it; secondly, our proximity in Canada to our giant neighbour, the U.S., from which we get most of our TV, film and even news consumption, means we hear tales of “Chapter 7” or “Chapter 13,” yet Canadian bankruptcy law differs greatly from the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. And thirdly, we have that font of unending opinion masquerading as fact known as the Internet.

Faced with such formidable competition for legal knowledge, it’s worth taking some time to address the most common bankruptcy myths in Canada, ones we hear on a daily basis in our offices. Canadians should be aware of their rights and options in the event of financial trouble.

Here are the top 10 bankruptcy myths (in no particular order):

1. I will lose my home

Very few people who file bankruptcy in Canada actually lose their homes these days. The net equity in your home is what is of interest to the creditors, specifically. And there are even exemptions for this depending on the province you live in ($10,000 in Ontario).

If there is non-exempt equity in your house when you file for bankruptcy,  you make a settlement payable to the estate (via the Trustee). Upon discharge, the trustee would release its interest in the property. Or you could file a Consumer Proposal as an alternative to bankruptcy (in which case your assets are yours to keep, anyway). Either way, you would keep your home. Or you can choose to have the Trustee sell the home and use the proceeds to pay the creditors only the amounts they are owed by proven claims.

2. I will lose my possessions

Personal effects, furniture and household goods are exempt in bankruptcy. Exceptions would be made if you had items of extraordinary value such as fine art, which you would be asked to declare on your sworn Statement of Affairs to the creditors. You can exempt one car with a net value of $6,600 or less. So if you have a fully encumbered car (financed or leased), keep it if you wish, provided you continue to make the payments in the normal course of business. Keep your stuff.

3. I will lose my job

It is illegal for an employer to terminate employment simply for filing a bankruptcy. In fact, unless there is a wage garnishing order in place, your employer will not be informed of your filing. Some professions have rules in place precluding your filing a bankruptcy, such as having a broker’s license in which trust accounts are managed. In that case, a proposal could be filed instead as it does not include such restrictions.

4. I will go to jail

Laugh if you like but we get asked this a lot. I hesitate to even mention it, but it is possible to be imprisoned under s. 198 of the BIA for Bankruptcy Offenses, but it is rare and you’d have to work hard to get there. Example: fraudulent sworn statements or conveyances (transfers of property) without disclosure. In well over two decades of practice, we’ve never had a bankrupt person go to jail.

5. My spouse’s credit will be affected

An almost universal question for married people who file bankruptcy. You cannot affect another person’s credit by filing a bankruptcy, period. If you have joint debts with your spouse and he or she does not also file, they are 100 per cent liable for those debts and only those debts.

6. I will not be able to get future credit/buy a house

As stated earlier, bankruptcy is intended to be rehabilitative in nature, not punitive. It would not be fair to punish someone forever for filing a bankruptcy, so the record of it stays on your credit report for six years following discharge for first-time bankrupts. After that, it is gone. Your ability to buy a house will always be governed by your financial circumstances: your income, your assets, your spending and obligations. Many former bankrupts have been taught budgeting by their Trustee as part of the process and are now, of course, debt-free. So on paper, as long as they have the downpayment, many look pretty attractive as a lending risk. Even while the bankruptcy is still on your report when you apply for a mortgage, most still get approved in our experience. CMHC will guarantee a mortgage within three years of your discharge from bankruptcy depending on your financial situation.

7. I will not be able to renew my mortgage

Everybody who has an existing mortgage has asked this, and we’ve never had one client not get renewed, provided they remain with their existing lender and are current with the payments. Most are set up for auto-renewal.

8. I cannot include the taxes I owe in bankruptcy

Absolutely untrue. All taxes owing are unsecured debts fully dischargeable by bankruptcy (and proposals). This includes not just personal income tax but HST and, in the case of a business, payroll tax, which is a director liability and would trail you personally. The myth about taxes not being dischargeable in bankruptcy likely derives from the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, in which only certain tax debt for specific periods are dischargeable and only in certain situations. Canadian bankruptcy law discharges all tax debt universally, unless the Canada Revenue Agency has taken steps to secure it (a lien on a property) or in the case of fraud or tax evasion.

9. I will not be able to keep any lottery winnings

Despite how few people actually win the lottery, almost everyone asks about this. Any unexpected windfall of money during a bankruptcy is considered a non-exempt cash asset of the estate that vests in the Trustee for the general benefit of creditors. In normal parlance: the Trustee would pay out all proven claims by unsecured creditors in the bankruptcy in full, and the remaining lottery winnings would be returned at the time of discharge.

10. My trustee will restrict the income I can make

The bankruptcy act sets out surplus income standards, updated annually, which govern the portion of the bankrupt’s income which should be paid to creditors. The standards are based on the number of people in a given household. So a bankrupt is technically not restricted in what they can make, but they must pay more if they make more above these levels. The bankruptcy would also be longer (before discharge) if there is surplus income.

Bonus Myth (11): Mortgage shortfalls can’t be included in bankruptcy in Canada

Wrong. Mortgage shortfalls certainly can be included in a bankruptcy (or consumer proposal). But it only matters in the provinces with power of sale legislation: Ontario, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and PEI. Let me explain by way of some background.

In Canada, certain provinces have power of sale legislation in place. In that system, a lender will commence proceedings when the homeowner defaults on their mortgage. The borrower remains responsible for any losses the lender may incur from the sale, and the lender will then commence legal action to recover the shortfall.

By contrast, a foreclosure (also the prevailing law in the U.S.) is undertaken by a lender when the homeowner defaults on their mortgage, but in this case the borrower is not liable for any loss incurred by the lender. In the U.S., many homeowners walked away from their properties during the 2008 housing crisis and were not liable for the shortfalls.

A bankruptcy (or a consumer proposal) stops or prevents any legal action taken against a homeowner for the shortfall incurred by the lender. It becomes a debt fully dischargeable in bankruptcy or via a completed proposal. This includes any type of mortgage (first, second, HELOCs, privates). The secured debt gets paid out as much as possible from the property’s sale, and any shortfall is unsecured, and therefore eligible for discharge in any insolvency proceeding.

So if you are upside down on your mortgage (you owe more than the home’s value), you could file a bankruptcy or proposal and include that shortfall amount amongst your other unsecured debts in that insolvency. That is a sizeable advantage to a debtor versus being on the hook for any loss in a foreclosure.

Source: MoneySense.ca – Scott Terrio is an estate administrator at Cooper & Co. Ltd, a licensed insolvency trustee in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @CooperTrustee

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Credit ratings 101: Four factors that determine your creditworthiness

Most Canadians know their credit rating is a number, somewhere between 300 and 900, that generally reflects your credit-worthiness and is used to secure approval from lenders. But the fact is, nobody outside of the ratings agencies knows exactly how they work.

Canada’s two credit rating agencies — Equifax and TransUnion — do not publicly reveal the exact formula used to calculate your score in order to keep people from gaming the system. However, there are some basic indicators you can use to improve your standing.

Personal finance coach David Lester joined CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday, to clear up some misconceptions and outline some simple steps you can take to increase your score.

Credit ratings, he explains, are broadly determined by five weighted factors:

  • Payment history (35 per cent)
  • Amount owed (30 per cent)
  • Length of history (15 per cent)
  • New credit (10 per cent)
  • Types of credit used (10 per cent)

Here are four things Lester said you need to know about how to improve your credit rating:

Having a zero balance on your credit card can have a negative impact

Lending money is a business, and financial institutions want to make sure they make money by charging interest.

“If you pay off your debt all the time, and you don’t pay any interest, that actually hurts your credit rating because they want to know that you are going to pay a little bit of interest,” Lester said.

He said it is important to remember that a credit score is a measure of how much lenders want your business. They are designed with banks in mind, not you. While that zero balance may help you sleep at night, avoiding as much interest as possible does not necessarily win you any favours.

Keep your first credit card

Remember that credit card you signed up for in your first year of university while wandering around campus on frosh week? It’s probably the genesis of your credit managing history, so keep it active to show lenders you have been responsibly managing debt since your college days.

“They (lenders) like that you’ve been borrowing money and paying it back for a long time,” Lester said.

Credit diversity is a good thing

So you have a car loan, outstanding student debt, a mortgage, and a few charges on your credit card. How will this impact your credit score? The answer depends on how well you are managing all those debt obligations. But, broadly speaking, diversity is good.

“They like a plethora of types of loans. If you have all of those under control, and you are doing well on all of them, then it will affect your score (positively),” Lester said.

Do your homework, because credit ratings are prone to errors

Don’t be surprised if you pull your credit report and discover an error. Lester estimates about 30 per cent contain mistakes, some of which could saddle you with a higher interest rate or see you denied credit all together.

If you find something wrong, flag it with the credit agency as soon as possible and stay on top of your records on an annual basis.

“It’s really important to do that every year. Just go through and make sure there aren’t any little mistakes on your credit rating,” Lester said. “You want to make sure that you clear those up, and it will boost your rate.”

 

Source: Jeff LagerquistCTVNews.ca 

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Can’t Get a Bank Mortgage? How Do Private Mortgages Work?

Not everyone can qualify for a mortgage these days. Government regulations targeting down payments, investment properties and high-ratio buyers mean that more Canadians won’t qualify for a home loan.

It’s often said that housing is the bedrock of the Canadian economy. But for years, federal regulations have clamped down on the ability to qualify for a mortgage. The self-employed, individuals living in rural areas and those with past credit troubles have long struggled with home financing. Now that struggle is extending to other segments of the population.

Against this backdrop, more and more Canadians are turning to private mortgage lenders for their home financing needs. Although many borrowers think of private mortgages as a last-resort option, they are a viable option for many people.

Private Mortgage Lenders Operate Differently from Banks

A private mortgage is simply a home loan offered by an individual or company other than a bank or traditional finance provider.

One of the biggest benefits of working with a private lender is they operate differently from traditional banks on many levels. Since they get their money through individual investors or groups of investors, they have the freedom to set their own lending criteria. This means they are more flexible in the application process and don’t have to deal with the stringent guidelines set forth by the major institutions. This means that if your situation falls outside conventional lending guidelines, a private mortgage could be your best bet.

Private mortgages are often suitable if you:

  • Are self-employed
  • Want to purchase raw land or unique property
  • Have less than ideal credit
  • Want to invest in real estate
  • Need access to equity in your home, but don’t want to refinance your first bank mortgage due to excessive penalties
  • Need to consolidate high interest rate debt
  • Are looking to renovate existing property
  • Looking for a short-term loan

How Private Mortgages Work

If you’re exploring a private mortgage, the first step is to seek out a broker who provides alternative lending services. The broker will assess your situation and determine if you are eligible for a loan. In particular, they will assess your ability to make the loan payments on time.

From there, the broker will then search for the best mortgage solution that meets your specific needs. They will then structure the deal and put in place an exit strategy so that you know how long the private mortgage will last.

It’s important to note that private lenders usually lend on location. That’s because private mortgages are uninsured, which means the lender falls back on the property should a default occur. That’s why location of the property is extremely vital in determining whether you qualify for a private mortgage and the rate that you’re offered.

Broker fees and legal fees generally apply when securing a private mortgage.

Private mortgages are growing in popularity as more borrowers fall outside the traditional lending guidelines set forth by the major banks. The good news is there are plenty of options for those looking for an alternative lending solution to finance their next property or major purchase.

Source: Canada Mortgages Inc. – 1 September, 2017 / by Sam Bourgi

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Good debt, bad debt and good bad debt

There has been an awful lot of noise in the media recently about the increasingly high levels of debt the average Canadian is carrying around on his or her back. And rightfully so: According to a recent report from Statistics Canada, our total national debt load, including mortgages, sits at around $1.8 trillion. (Why does that number always make me think of Mike Myers?). That’s more than $50,000 for every Canuck. But amid all the commotion are some surprisingly difficult-to-answer questions: Is all this debt bad? Is any of it good? And how can we determine what debt is good, what debt is bad or should we just try to avoid all debt like the plague? The answers aren’t always clear-cut. Clearly, further insight is required.

Economic types traditionally describe debt as being either good or bad, depending on what it’s used for. The good stuff is generally defined as money borrowed to buy something that will appreciate in value, like a house. Conversely, bad debt is described as money borrowed to buy something that will depreciate in value, like Buddy using his credit card to borrow $2,000 for a new set of golf clubs (they’re on sale!), because everyone knows you’ll play like Tiger Woods once you have a $2,000 set of his Nike golf clubs.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Not all good debt is good and not all bad debt is bad. (Warning: This is going to get wordy.) Yes, I am saying that there is such a thing as bad good debt and good bad debt. An example of bad good debt is when Buddy goes out and buys an oversized house that exceeds his needs. And to make matters worse, Buddy buys the house before he is financially ready. He puts down a too small down payment on his too big house and as a result, he ends up with a too big mortgage—which he amortizes over too many years. Given enough time, the house will likely appreciate, and this technically makes Buddy’s big mortgage “good” debt. However, it’s unlikely the house’s value will increase enough to cover the cost of the interest he’ll end up paying, let alone the larger expenses the house is going to generate: heating, upkeep, taxes and so on. To boot, there is a real possibility that this “good” debt will interfere with Buddy’s ability to properly save for his future. Broadly speaking, if Buddy’s housing costs (mortgage, utilities, insurance and taxes) exceeds 32% of his gross income, and if he will be paying those costs for more than 25 years, then it’s bad good debt.

On the other side, when Buddy’s sister Buddy-Lou takes out a two-year loan to help her pay for a gently used Honda Civic, that loan is technically bad debt since the car is going to depreciate. However, borrowing this money makes more sense than borrowing for a new car and it certainly makes more sense than leasing a new vehicle. (We’ll save that discussion for another time.) Assuming she takes care of it, Buddy-Lou’s car will still have value for years after the loan is paid off. Sure, it would be nice if she had the money in her bank account to buy that Civic when her old car died, but it would also be nice if George R. R. Martin didn’t kill off all of the best characters in Game of Thrones. Life happens. The loan needs to be manageable, without putting pressure on Buddy-Lou’s ability to save for her future. If that’s the case, it’s good bad debt.

It’s important to understand there is a big difference between accepting that you likely will incur some debt as you go through life and accepting debt as a way of life. It’s also a good idea to occasionally remind ourselves that even good good debt, like a properly structured mortgage is debt nonetheless and, as such, the interest you are paying on it isn’t doing you any favours. All debt, good, bad or anything in between, costs money and we should always be on the lookout for ways to pay it off as quickly as reasonably possible.

As a nation, we have become far too comfortable with personal debt. Today’s low interest rates are certainly a contributing factor, but the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome plays a part too. In some circles, it has become acceptable, even fashionable, to rack up mountains of high-interest credit card debt and then borrow more money to make the payments. Do not buy into this thinking. Pun intended. Credit card interest rates are anything but low, with many cards charging up to 29.99% interest. Even a “low interest” credit card will charge you around 12%. If you’re carrying a balance on your cards and you’re struggling to pay it down, you should transfer the balance to a low interest line of credit while you work it off. That would at least be better bad debt.

There is an inherent danger in describing debt as good. Sure, some types of debt are obviously better than others but that’s not the same thing as being good. Maybe we should further refine the two traditional definitions of debt into “bad debt” and “responsible-debt-that-I-thought-about-carefully-before-I-took-on-but-I-still-need-to-eliminate-as-quickly-as-reasonably-possible debt.” Because really, the only good debt is no debt at all.

Source: Money Sense – Robert R. Brown is a personal finance speaker and the author of Wealthing Like Rabbits. Follow him on Twitter @wealthingrabbit

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Indebted seniors among Canada’s most at-risk sectors

Indebted seniors among Canada’s most at-risk sectors

 

Indebtedness among Canada’s elderly population is on the rise, according to academics and financial experts at an international conference at Ottawa’s Carleton University last week.

Contributing to this trend—not just in Canada, but worldwide as well—are multiple pressures that include easy credit, unreliable pension plans, divorce among seniors, unmonitored spending by people with dementia, and financing the needs of younger family members.

Compounding the issue is a similar growth in the number of people in late middle age who are quitting employment or taking on even greater debt, either to care for their aging parents or to help their adult children buy their own homes.

“There is the worldwide phenomenon of older people who go into debt to help their children,” Carleton University School of Public Policy and Administration professor Saul Schwartz said, as quoted by the Ottawa Citizen.

Earlier this year, a global survey commissioned by HSBC found that 37 per cent of young Canadians who currently have their own homes used the “Bank of Mom and Dad” as a source of funding. Meanwhile, 21 per cent of millennial home owners moved back in with their parents to save for a deposit.

Schwartz, who was one of the conference’s organizers, added that Canadian seniors suffer from a lack of source that provides impartial advice.

“You can talk to your bank. But if the advice is free, it’s probably not unbiased,” he explained.

A study conducted by Equifax Canada and HomEquity Bank last year uncovered that 16.5 per cent of people aged over 55 were carrying mortgages. The average mortgage balance in this demographic swelled from $158,000 in 2013 to $176,000 in 2015.

Bankruptcy trustees Hoyes, Michalos & Associates Inc. have warned that seniors were the fastest-growing risk sector for bankruptcies.

“The share of insolvency filings for debtors aged 50 and over increased to 30 per cent in our 2015 study compared to 27 per cent in 2013,” the Ontario-based firm warned, adding that on average, debtors aged over 50 held unsecured debt of over $68,000 (over 20 per cent higher than the average debtor).

 

Source: Mortgage Broker News – by Ephraim Vecina15 Aug 2017

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