Be Careful About Putting Only One Spouse’s Name on a Reverse Mortgage

A recent case involving basketball star Caldwell Jones demonstrates the danger in having only one spouse’s name on a reverse mortgage. A federal appeals court has 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 borrowers 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. Mr. Jones, who blocked more than 2,200 shots during his 17-year professional basketball career, obtained a reverse mortgage in 2014 on the Georgia home he lived in with his wife. The contract defined the “borrower” to be “Caldwell Jones, Jr., a married man.” 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.

On appeal, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (Estate of Caldwell Jones, Jr. v. Live Well Financial (U.S. Ct. App., 11th Cir., No. 17-14677, Sept. 5, 2018)) ruled that the federal law in question only covers what the federal government can insure and does not govern the insurer’s right to foreclose. The court agrees with Ms. Jones that the law is intended to safeguard widows and implies that the federal government should not have insured the loan in the first place, but finds that federal law does not cover the insurer’s private right to demand immediate payment and pursue foreclosure.

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 65. If you have a reverse mortgage with only one spouse on it, contact an elder law attorney to find out the best way to protect the non-borrowing spouse.

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