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Harry Gross: Bank dragging feet on returning settlement charges

Dear Harry: We have an adjustable-rate mortgage that is due for a rate change on July 1. The rate will go from 4 percent to 6 percent, but from here on it will change every year. We decided to refinance. The lender is our own bank so we thought it would g

Dear Harry

: We have an adjustable-rate mortgage that is due for a rate change on July 1. The rate will go from 4 percent to 6 percent, but from here on it will change every year. We decided to refinance. The lender is our own bank so we thought it would give us the best deal. They offered us a fixed rate of 5.5 percent on a 25-year mortgage, which is a little more than we were paying, but still very affordable. They would not just amend the old mortgage, so we got hit with a bunch of settlement costs, which we paid in cash. When we came home from the settlement, we realized for the first time that the mortgage payments were to come out of our bank account automatically each month. That didn't sit too well with my wife. We got into a big hassle over this and decided to back out of the deal if they wouldn't change that provision. The next day we went to the bank, and they wouldn't. We immediately notified them in writing that we wanted to rescind. They put us back into our old mortgage and told us we'd get back our settlement charges in a few days. That was almost two months ago. When we call, we get the old-fashioned runaround but no money. We know they have to give it back to us. How can we get them to toe the mark? Incidentally, we got the terms we wanted from another lender.

What Harry says: These toads are dragging their feet. They are required by federal law to give you back the money in 20 days. Write them a letter (certified mail with a return receipt requested) demanding the money plus interest at 5.5 percent for the number of days they're late. Give them 10 days to reply. If that fails, contact the Department of Banking at 1-800-PABANKS. A consumer has three days to rescind for any reason, or for no reason.

Dear Harry: Back in February, I took money out of my IRA to help my son buy a car. I intended to put the money back from a CD that was coming due before the 60 day "grace period." Unfortunately, I was injured in an accident and was in and out of consciousness when the 60 days expired. I called IRS and explained my situation, and I was told that the rule on the 60 days was hard and fast and that she didn't know of any exceptions that could help. "Tell me it ain't so, Joe."

What Harry says: As Shoeless Joe Jackson could not answer, "It ain't so." IRS makes exceptions for situations just like yours all the time. Get that money back into an IRA now. When you file your return for 2008, attach an explanation for why you're excluding the amount from your income. That will also prevent you from getting hit with the early withdrawal penalty if you're not yet 59 1/2.

Dear Harry: My aunt died last week and named me as executor in her will. Her assets consisted only of a couple of bank accounts and four CDs. There are only two heirs, both adults. She was living on her SS and a pretty good pension from the state. Both of these ended with her death. I consulted two lawyers about handling the estate, and the fees were way out of proportion to the value of the estate. Is it legal for me to try to handle this without a lawyer? She was a resident of Philadelphia, and I live in South Philly. Where would I start?

What Harry says: This appears to be a very simple estate. The starting point is the Register of Wills office in City Hall. The people there are very helpful and will tell you about advertising the death and the necessary filings including the Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax. Since you live in South Philly, you should have an easy time getting to City Hall. Be sure to bring the original will and at least one of the witnesses if they can be found. You'll find it a very interesting experience.

Dear Harry: About a year ago, I rented a large room in a home owned by a family friend. I had my own bed, a couple of chairs, a TV and a microwave. Unfortunately, I was incarcerated for a minor crime before the lease was up. She allowed me to get out of the lease, and she agreed to store my stuff in her basement with no charge until I get out (a six- month sentence). Four months into the sentence, she had a hot-water boiler break and all my stuff was badly damaged. My brother saw the damage, and told me the stuff was completely destroyed. I asked the landlord to claim a loss with her insurance company, and she refused because she didn't want her premiums to go up. That stuff was not new, but it had to be worth at least $1,000. Can I file a claim with her insurance company? Help!

What Harry says: This appears to be a situation where it was for your sole benefit. You paid her no rent for the use of that spot in her basement. She appears not to have been negligent. It's unfortunate, but I think you're out of luck. Since you're not the person insured, you can't file a claim with her company, either. Sorry.

Dear Harry: My wife remembers you saying many times that a parent should not transfer title to their home to their children. We wonder if our case is an exception. We have only one child, a son. He is married, with two kids. He has never done exceptionally well financially, but he has done a lot of good for a lot of people in the school where he teaches. We are in very good financial condition and are in our 80s. We have an estate in the high seven figures. We also have very high-limit, long-term-care insurance. We make annual gifts to each of the members of his family up to the federal exemption limit. We own a home here and another in a resort area. We are thinking of transferring title to the resort-area home to him and his wife. It's worth conservatively about $300,000. Are we an exception to the "rule?"

What Harry says: It certainly looks that way to me. You will have to file a gift-tax return, but there will be no tax due unless you've gone over the exemption level in a past year. I strongly urge you to have a lawyer who is an estate specialist review your situation before you make this move. Depending on the nature of your assets, there could be a better way to reduce your estate. Your son and his family can still have full use of the property without owning it.

Dear Harry: I am 72, and I live comfortably on my SS and a pension. However, there are times when it does get tight. My friend, who is a lawyer, suggested that a reverse mortgage looks ideal for me. He told me that he would prevent me from getting swindled into a bad deal. The loan officer at my bank suggested that I get a lump-sum reverse mortgage, and use the money to buy an annuity through the bank. I never heard of a reverse mortgage that's tied into an annuity. Is this the way to go? Is it safe?

What Harry says: In a word, the answer to the first question is hell no! It is safe, but so what? When you get the usual reverse mortgage, the lender advances you money each month. This has all of the earmarks of an annuity except that an annuity is guaranteed for your lifetime while the mortgage has limits. However, there are hefty charges tied to annuities that you won't have with the mortgage alone. In your case, where the money will be a kind of extra, the monthly amounts can be reduced to a level that will carry you beyond your normal life expectancy. *

Write Harry Gross c/o the Daily News, Box 7788, Philadelphia, PA 19101. Harry urges all his readers to give blood - contact the American Red Cross at 800-GIVE LIFE.