Time for a few final questions ...

This Q&A is writer Guy Halverson's last. And while he has gamely vowed to help out with one more Mutual Funds Quarterly (it runs in two &weeks), the questions and answers that follow this note also represent his final piece of work as a Monitor staff writer before he heads into retirement.

Guy has been covering business and the economy on and off for 35 years. LBJ was in the White House and Vietnam was dividing the nation when he joined the Monitor in early 1968.

The world of finance has seen dramatic change since then. "And largely for the better," notes Guy, "despite recessions, corporate scandals, and political upheavals.

"Financial markets are now linked together in instantaneous communication grids, encircling the globe," he points out. "Want to trade stocks at 6 p.m., or 3 o'clock in the morning? Someone, somewhere, is open for business."

Also, "scores of new financial products have become available for individuals in recent years," Guy says, "from indexed mutual funds and exchange-traded funds to sophisticated hedge funds. There is now something for pretty much everyone, regardless of one's status or wealth."

When the Q&A column first appeared, on Jan. 23, 1997, the Dow Jones industrial average stood at 6755.74 points, just beginning the ascent to its all-time high of 11722.98 points on Jan. 14, 2000.

Broad financial questions had already been addressed in this section, including in "Your Money" stories, also by Guy. But the Q&A delivered quick answers to specific reader questions. It tapped the wisdom of professional money managers, accountants, and attorneys. (And will continue to do so once Guy's successor is in place.)

Some questions have involved day-to-day issues surrounding mutual funds, bank accounts, and wills. Others sought help with serious problems. One woman was caught up in an acrimonious dispute with her adult siblings because her father had left his entire estate to her. Another woman had been incarcerated for stealing cash from her employer, a lawyer.

In one recent column, a reader worried about how his adult son should draft a will to protect his family - the son lived outside the US, with a foreign-born wife. In another, a couple asked how to begin putting their financial lives back together after declaring bankruptcy.

"The column is a constant reminder that we need to view other people's financial situations with a great sense of compassion," says Guy. "Over the course of a lifetime, events can occur that can upend the best-intentioned and most intricate planning. But there is always an answer that is appropriate for the moment, and that can help the individual or family move forward."

We thank Guy for dedicating so much time to finding those answers on readers' behalf, and we respect his decision to now adhere to his own philosophy. "Tending to one's finances can be a legitimate endeavor," Guy says, "but more important are one's family, friends, and faith."

- The Editors

Q: I recently entered a sweepstakes that awarded me a football autographed by former San Francisco 49er quarterback Steve Young. The donor, Marriott Corp., valued the football at $250. I checked eBay, and Steve Young-autographed footballs were selling for less than $100. Do I have to declare "income" of $250 on my 2002 taxes? Can I claim a smaller amount? What if I gave the football to charity? Could I take a deduction for $250?
R.V., Lexington, Mass.

A: Nice catch on your NFL football! According to a spokesman for the IRS, however, you need only declare the "fair market value" of the football for income-tax purposes. You must be able to substantiate the lower amount, of course. If you make a contribution to charity, you would take the deduction on the fair market value, not the value declared by the donor.

Q: What is the address of the Franklin-Templeton mutual fund group? I would like a complete list of all their funds. How many funds do they currently have?
R.B., Norridge, Ill.

A: The group offers more than 100 funds under three names, Franklin Funds, Templeton Funds, and Mutual Series Funds. Write to Franklin-Templeton, P.O. Box 997152, Sacramento, Calif. 95899-7152.

Q: I have credit-card debt dating back the to the early 1990s. I would like to take care of this debt and hopefully repair my credit. Am I still responsible for this debt? This has been really bothering me.
P.C., Leavenworth, Kan.

A: "You need to find out if there has been a court judgment entered against you regarding the debt," says an attorney and fee-only financial planner in New York.

If yes, and the judgment is renewed, you may well be liable for the debt. "If so, check with the creditor and seek to negotiate a settlement," the lawyer says.

But also check on the statute of limitations regarding debts in your state. If the time-frame for required repayment has passed, you may be off the hook on the debt.

If you wish, you could still make a good-faith repayment. Or, if off the hook, you could seek a secured credit card and start to rebuild your financial history, the attorney says.

Q: I recently spotted an opportunity to refinance my student loan for a rate in the neighborhood of 2 percent. But when I called lenders and told them that I had consolidated my loan once before they told me I was ineligible to do so again under the law. True? What can I do to get a lower rate, other than buying a house and rolling it in that loan?
M.M., Boston

A: According to a spokesman for SallieMae, the nation's largest provider of education funding, you can consolidate an existing student loan only once. To consolidate the loan again, you would need to add another federal student loan into the package, he says. But even if you do that, you would not necessarily bring your interest rate down much, because the interest rate for the new loan would be "weighted," reflecting the rate on the old loan, plus the rate on the new amount, he says.

Q: I have a small amount of money invested in a Boston-area mutual fund. The fund made no money this past year, yet the fund company is now charging me a fee for having a small balance under $1,000. Do I have to pay this fee?
C.E., Los Angeles

A: Alas, it's a common charge. Rule of thumb: Always check on fees, including annual charges on low balances.

Q: I have a car with a three-year lease and no plans to purchase it. I know that I will ultimately go over the prescribed mileage limit. Are there any options beyond just paying the mileage penalty outlined in the contract agreement when the lease expires? Can I turn the car in early, before the available miles are used up, and buy something else without paying the penalty?
W.W., Strasburg, Pa.

A: According to Jack Gillis, a spokesman with the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), you have two options:

1. If the penalty charge for turning in the car early is less than the mileage charge, take the hit and pay the early turn-in penalty. But beware: "The dealer could sock you with other charges, such as wear-and-tear charges," Mr. Gillis says. "Those are always very subjective."

2. Buy the car at the end of the three years, and seek to have the dealer absorb the mileage penalty in your new purchase contract. Or perhaps the dealer will scrub the mileage penalty altogether. Once you've purchased the car, keep it and pay on the contract; or sell it, pay off the contract, and get another car.

"Sticker shock on a lease always comes at the end of a lease agreement," says Gillis. Bottom line, he says: Don't lease. "Leases are always more expensive than purchases."

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