DEAR BRUCE: Several years ago, I got myself into some financial trouble and relied on credit cards to bail me out. Unfortunately, I ran them up quite high, and they have gone into collection. I now have money to pay these debts off but am not sure how to go about it. It seems that these debts have gone to another company, not the original with which I opened the accounts. Who am I supposed to pay? Should I pay the company that is contacting me now or the original company? What is the best way to get these paid off and out of my life once and for all? — Reader, via email

DEAR BRUCE: Several years ago, I got myself into some financial trouble and relied on credit cards to bail me out. Unfortunately, I ran them up quite high, and they have gone into collection. I now have money to pay these debts off but am not sure how to go about it. It seems that these debts have gone to another company, not the original with which I opened the accounts. Who am I supposed to pay? Should I pay the company that is contacting me now or the original company? What is the best way to get these paid off and out of my life once and for all? — Reader, via email

DEAR READER: If the collection agency has purchased this debt from the original credit-card company, then they are the ones with whom you should deal. They are representing the credit-card company, and for you to pay it off, you will have to work with them. Despite the fact that you are paying these debts off, they will not disappear from your credit report. You have already damaged your credit, and it will show for some time. Every agreement you make with these agencies needs to be confirmed in writing before any money changes hands. These black marks will stay with you, and despite the fact that there are companies out there that say they can remove them from your report, trust me, it can't be done.

Most of us have made these mistakes in the past, but there is life after bad credit. Congratulations on doing the proper thing and paying off these debts.

DEAR BRUCE: My husband and I recently applied for a loan, and much to our surprise, each of the credit-reporting agencies came back and said that he was deceased. Well, he is very much alive. We had someone look into it for us thinking that maybe someone transposed his Social Security numbers where we were taking out the loan. Nope! The numbers were right and he is indeed dead, according to everyone. How do we go about proving that he is alive and well?

If this isn't straightened out now, more problems await us. — S.T., via email

DEAR S.T.: The best thing to do is to write to each of the credit-reporting agencies and ask them to tell you how they heard of his death. Just as when you have a bad report on your credit report and you're not sure how or why, they have to affirm where they got the information. They are obliged to go back to their source for this information, and if it cannot be confirmed, then it must be removed. In the event that it is confirmed, you will have to go back to the source or agency that has reported him as deceased and ask for their source for this information. Hopefully, this will take care of the problem and your husband shall once again walk among the living.

DEAR BRUCE: My father-in-law will soon be going into a full-care facility. He has never had a will, as he believes that because everything is in his name and my wife's name (his daughter), everything will be fine. I don't think this is right, and it doesn't cost that much to have a will drawn up to make sure that everything is protected. There are no other relatives who can come forward and claim anything, so he thinks he's set. How can I convince him that he's wrong? — Reader, via email

DEAR READER: You and I agree on this one. There is no excuse not to have a properly drawn and executed will. He may be right that everything will pass on to his daughter through joint tenancy and right of survivorship. The will serves as a backup in the event they don't. For the few dollars that a simple will costs, it's just plain silly to take the chance that something could go wrong. After all, once you are gone, you are not around to straighten the problem out. The best thing you can do for someone you love is to have a will.

Send your questions to: Smart Money, P.O. Box 2095, Elfers, FL 34680. Email to: bruce@brucewilliams.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in future columns. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.