New Rule: Spouses Not Named on Reverse Mortgages Are Protected From Foreclosure

In Bennett v. Donovan the D.C. court provided some protection from foreclosure of a reverse mortgage for widows or widowers whose deceased spouses were the only ones on the mortgage documents.

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In the past, if you weren’t listed as a borrower on a reverse mortgage on your home and your spouse died, you could end up losing the home to a foreclosure. However, a recent District of Columbia federal court’s landmark ruling recognizes the need to protect surviving spouses in this situation. Read on to learn more about the groundbreaking ruling in Bennett et al. v. Donovan and how the outcome of this case can protect you if your spouse passes away, but you are not named as a co-borrower on a reverse mortgage.

Reverse Mortgages

A reverse mortgage allows older homeowners to draw upon the equity in their home to provide a source of income in later years. This type of mortgage is different from a traditional mortgage because, instead of you paying the bank, the bank pays you. The payment to the borrower comes in the form of a lump sum, monthly amounts, or a line of credit (or a combination of these options). (Learn more about reverse mortgages in Nolo’s article Reverse Mortgages for Retirees and Seniors.)

Eligibility for a Reverse Mortgage

By far, the most common type of reverse mortgage available is the FHA's Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM). (The U.S. government insures HECMs through the FHA.) To be eligible for this type of reverse mortgage, you must be at least 62 years of age. Also, you'd need to occupy the property as a principal residence and have substantial equity in the property. (Learn more about HECMs by going to www.hud.gov and running a search for “FHA Reverse Mortgages (HECMs) for Seniors.”)

Taxes, Insurance, and Upkeep

While you don’t have to make any mortgage payments with a reverse mortgage loan, you are responsible for paying:

  • property taxes
  • hazard insurance premiums
  • mortgage insurance, and
  • home maintenance costs.

Repaying the Loan

If you take out a reverse mortgage, the loan doesn’t have to be paid back until you die, move, or sell the home. Generally, when one of these events occurs, the lender takes possession of the home through a foreclosure to repay the loan. (Learn more in Nolo’s article Foreclosure of Reverse Mortgages.)

Why Would a Borrower Leave His or Her Spouse Off the Reverse Mortgage?

The amount you can borrower with a reverse mortgage depends on a number of factors, including the age of the youngest borrower. If your spouse is considerably younger than you are, you'll get less money with a reverse mortgage if you include him or her on the loan.

Because of this, mortgage brokers sometimes advise homeowners to quitclaim the property to the older spouse and leave the younger spouse off the mortgage to increase the amount of the loan. In many instances, brokers misled younger spouses by assuring them that they would be able to remain in the home after the borrowing spouse died.

However, once the borrower died, the surviving spouse (who was not named on the loan) was often shocked to learn that the loan had to be repaid immediately or else the lender would foreclose on the property. (Under the terms of the mortgage, the lender can demand immediate payment on the loan if the "borrower dies and the property is not the principal residence of at least one surviving borrower.”)

The Bennett Ruling

In the recent case of Bennett et al. v. Donovan, 2013 WL 5442154 (D.D.C. Sept. 30, 2013), the court ruled that a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulation that allows lenders to demand that surviving spouses immediately repay reverse mortgage loans upon the death of their spouses violates federal law.

Case Background

The plaintiffs in this case were the surviving spouses of reverse mortgage borrowers. Only their spouses, not the plaintiffs themselves, were listed as borrowers under the mortgage contracts. The plaintiffs stated that their reverse mortgage brokers told them that they would be protected from displacement from the home after their spouses died. However, when their spouses passed away, the lenders demanded immediate repayment of the loans.

Rights of the Surviving Spouse After the Borrower Dies

The plaintiffs claimed that the HUD regulation violated federal law because it did not protect them as non-mortgagor spouses. In particular, the plaintiffs relied on a federal statute that states HUD may not insure a reverse mortgage unless the repayment obligation was deferred until the homeowner's death. The term “homeowner” was defined as including the spouse of a homeowner. Accordingly, the plaintiffs argued that they were not required to repay the loan and were protected from foreclosure.

On the flip side, the regulations implementing the HECM statute state that the loan becomes due and payable upon the death of all "mortgagors." A “mortgagor” is the borrower listed on the mortgage. Furthermore, HUD’s form documents for reverse mortgages allow lenders to call the mortgage due upon the death of the mortgagor, even if there is a non-borrowing spouse still living in the home. As a result, lenders have historically called the loan due when the borrower named in the mortgage died, even if there was a surviving spouse.

Court Rules That Lenders Cannot Demand Immediate Repayment from Surviving Spouses

In the end, the court determined that HUD violated the statute when it insured the reverse mortgages of the plaintiffs' spouses pursuant to agency regulation, which permitted the loan obligations to come due upon the borrower’s death, even if the plaintiffs' spouses were still alive. The court also found, however, that it did not have the authority to require HUD to take any particular action to remedy its error and sent the matter back to HUD to correct the problem.

Exactly how HUD will fix this issue is unknown at this time. Ultimately, this case will likely lead to regulatory changes that will permit surviving spouses who are not named on reverse mortgages to remain in their homes. As far as existing loans that fit into this category, the agency may have to offer to take over affected loans. This means that the FHA could face huge losses as a result of the court’s decision because younger spouses who weren't on the mortgages will be able to live in the homes and receive payments.

Understanding the Risks Associated with a Reverse Mortgage

Since it is unclear what HUD’s next step will be, this ruling does not mean that you can now safely assume your spouse will be fine if you take out a reverse mortgage and leave him or her off the loan. It is highly recommend that you proceed cautiously if you are thinking about taking out a reverse mortgage. Be sure that you know the risks and watch out for reverse mortgage scams. (Learn more in our article Reverse Mortgage Scams.)

Also, if you and your spouse are considering taking out a reverse mortgage, make sure both of you attend the counseling session that is required before signing HECM loan documents. Additionally, you should be familiar with the new rules governing reverse mortgages that went into effect in September of 2013 that reduce the amount available to borrowers, as well as new rules pertaining to tax and insurance payments, which go into effect early next year. (Learn more in Nolo’s article New Restrictions on Reverse Mortgages.)

by: , Contributing Editor

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