Q&A: How to get out from under a crushing reverse-mortgage debt

Dear Liz: Our elderly father took out a reverse mortgage in 2010 with the goal of getting a $1,000 monthly income stream. Fast forward to today: Dad has passed away, and our mom is still alive at 97. The payback amount of the mortgage has ballooned to $360,000. Because it’s an adjustable rate mortgage, the rate is increasing with the inflation rate. We’re being told that this is all legal, but it seems like usury to me. None of us children have enough cash to pay off the reverse mortgage, so it will continue to go up stratospherically each and every month. The entire balance will become due if she leaves her home or passes away. Do you have any suggestions?

Answer: Reverse mortgages allow borrowers to tap their equity without having to make payments while they remain in the home. But the amounts they borrow accrue interest and, as you’ve seen, the debt can grow substantially over time.

If your mother dies or moves out, the lender will demand payment within 30 days. It may be possible to extend the deadline for up to six months, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If you don’t have the cash to pay off the loan, you could try to get a mortgage or to sell the home to pay the debt. If you sell it, you would need to clear enough to pay off the debt or at least get 95% of the home’s appraised value. Another option — especially if there’s little or no equity left — is to simply turn the house over to the lender. You won’t be on the hook if the mortgage balance exceeds what the home is worth.