A 2018 case involving basketball star Caldwell Jones demonstrates the danger in having only one spouse’s name on a reverse mortgage. A federal appeals court ruled that an insurance company may foreclose on a reverse mortgage after the death of the borrower, Mr. Jones, even though Mr. Jones’ widow is still living in the house. While there are protections in place for non-borrowing spouses, many spouses are still facing foreclosure and eviction.
A reverse mortgage allows homeowners to use the equity in their home to take out a loan, but borrowers must be 62 years or older to qualify for this type of mortgage. If one spouse is under age 62, the younger spouse has to be left off the loan in order for the couple to qualify for a reverse mortgage. Some lenders have actually encouraged couples to put only the older spouse on the mortgage because the couple could borrow more money that way. But couples often did this without realizing the potentially catastrophic implications. If only one spouse’s name was on the mortgage and that spouse died, the surviving spouse would be required to either repay the loan in full or face eviction.
In order to protect non-borrowing spouses, the federal government revised its guidelines for reverse mortgages taken out after August 4, 2014 to allow spouses to stay in the house as long as they meet certain criteria, including proving ownership within 90 days of the borrower’s death. In 2015, the federal government allowed lenders to defer foreclosure on a widow or widower and assign the mortgage to the federal government. Advocacy groups looking at reverse mortgage foreclosures have found that despite these new regulations, lenders are still foreclosing on non-borrowing spouses. Of the 591 non-borrowing spouses who have sought help to avoid foreclosure, only 317 received assistance.
These regulations did not help Mr. Jones’ wife, Vanessa. Ms. Jones did not put her name on the reverse mortgage because she was under age 62 at the time of the mortgage. Mr. Jones died later that year, and when Ms. Jones did not repay the loan, the insurer began foreclosure proceedings.
Ms. Jones sued the insurer in federal court to prevent the foreclosure, arguing that federal law prohibited the insurer from foreclosing on the house while she lived in it. Under a provision in federal law, the federal government “may not insure” a reverse mortgage unless the “homeowner” does not have to repay the loan until the homeowner either dies or sells the mortgaged property and defines “homeowner” to include the borrower’s spouse. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals did not agree and allowed the foreclosure proceedings to continue.
When purchasing a reverse mortgage, it is always safer to put both spouse’s names on the mortgage. If one spouse is underage when the mortgage is originally taken out, that spouse can be added to the mortgage when he or she reaches age 62. If you have a reverse mortgage with only one spouse on it, contact your attorney to find out the best way to protect the non-borrowing spouse. If you are thinking about obtaining a reverse mortgage, contact your certified elder law attorney to discuss the pros and cons and to make sure you and your family are protected.