Understanding Reverse Mortgages: The Pros and Cons

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When it comes to helping an aging loved one with financial decisions, caregivers want to make sure they take the time to understand all aspects of the transaction. One option for seniors that is becoming increasingly popular is to use the equity from their home to increase their cash flow. Some seniors need to pay off old home equity loans and others may have credit card debt that they would like to eliminate. Some elderly parents need additional cash flow to pay in-home caregivers, and some need the money to simply be able to afford to pay their daily living expenses. Regardless of the reason, a reverse mortgage (also known as a Home Equity Conversion Mortgage) is a big decision for that senior, their family members and their caregivers.

Reverse mortgages have received a lot of press in recent years. Of course there are pros and cons to using this option, but interestingly enough, two large organizations support and advocate them, especially for seniors who need help paying for long-term care.

A study released by The National Council on the Aging (NCOA) shows that reverse mortgages can be used by over 13 million Americans to pay for long-term care expenses at home, allowing many to remain independent and in their homes longer. The "Use Your Home to Stay at Home: Expanding the Use of Reverse Mortgages to Pay for Long Term Care" report, funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also shows how reverse mortgages can alleviate financial pressure, not only for individuals and families, but also for state Medicaid programs and the federal government.

Pros of a Reverse Mortgage

Reverse mortgages are backed by (and regulated by) the the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Seniors age 62 and older are eligible to use this federal program to procure a "non-recourse loan," which means that the heirs of the seniors are not responsible for repayment. In fact, this type of loan does not have to be repaid unless both homeowners (assuming a couple) leave the residence permanently or pass away. No monthly payments are required. On the contrary, the senior is the one who gets paid.

The money the elderly receive from a reverse mortgage is tax free and does not interfere with SSI or Medicare benefits. For those senior homeowners who are having trouble making ends meet, this can be a lifesaver.

Some use this extra cash flow to pay for in-home care, adult day care, prescription drugs, credit card debt, and much-needed home repairs or modifications so that they can live safely and more comfortably.

Many seniors' homes have been saved from foreclosure by using this method to pay past-due property taxes or to pay off current mortgages that have become unaffordable.

Prior to completing an application for a reverse mortgage, seniors are required to attend a HUD counseling session. This is designed to make sure the senior understands how the reverse mortgage works and to give them an opportunity to get answers to any questions they may have. They speak with a trained counselor either over the phone or in person, and a certificate is sent to the senior after the counseling session is completed. This certificate must accompany their reverse mortgage application.

Cons of a Reverse Mortgage

If you are a caregiver for an elderly parent who currently needs in-home care, the proceeds from a reverse mortgage can be extremely helpful when it comes to hiring help. However, also consider that, although reverse mortgage proceeds do not affect Medicare or Social Security, the proceeds can affect Medicaid.

Medicaid is a program that assists impoverished seniors in paying for healthcare costs and long-term care. Anyone who applies for Medicaid must meet certain complicated asset and income eligibility requirements before they are accepted into the program. If a senior takes a large lump sum of cash from the equity in their home via a reverse mortgage, they can knock themselves out of eligibility for Medicaid services.

It is extremely important to talk to an expert who understands the complicated laws that exist in each state in order to avoid problems down the road. An elder law attorney can be very helpful when considering how reverse mortgage proceeds might affect Medicaid qualification.

On another note, when considering a reverse mortgage, it is important that the senior intends to stay in their home for a few years. For those who are considering moving in the near future, it would be more appropriate to wait until they are living in the new home to move forward with the application process. Closing costs are most always factored into the loan, leaving very little in the way of any out-of–pocket costs for seniors, but those closing costs are still an issue, which makes it important for the senior to try and stay in the home for as long as possible.

Myths about Reverse Mortgages

Myth: The bank will own the senior's home.
Fact: Banks are not in the business of owning seniors' homes. The homeowner's name remains on the title to the home as it always has. There is no change in title and they retain ownership.

Myth: The bank can make an elderly person leave their home.
Fact: Reverse mortgages are regulated by the federal government and banks are not allowed to make seniors leave their homes. The lender is more interested in having the senior stay in the home for as long as possible. Seniors are merely responsible for continuing to pay their homeowners insurance, property taxes, and keeping the home in good shape.

Myth: The heirs will be responsible for repaying the loan when the senior dies.
Fact: Heirs are never responsible for repaying these loans. These are "non-recourse" loans. After the senior passes away, their estate has one year to sell the home for fair market value. That sale price then repays the loan.

Myth: Seniors have to make payments on reverse mortgage loans.
Fact: No payment is ever due on a reverse mortgage until the last living homeowner permanently leaves the home.

Myth: Reverse mortgage proceeds are taxable and affect Social Security or Medicare.
Fact: Proceeds are not taxable and do not affect Social Security or Medicare. However, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid can be affected.

Reverse mortgages aren't for everyone. However, it has been proven that in many cases the cash flow generated from a reverse mortgage will help seniors live better. Families should contact a reputable lender who can analyze the family's specific needs and possible future needs as it relates to paying for care.


Valerie VanBooven RN, BSN, PGCM is an author, professional speaker, and professional geriatric care manager. Valerie is the Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Next Generation Financial Services, a division of 1st Mariner Bank.

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14 Comments

Michael Adams - it appears you are advertising your biz by promoting your website & its many links. If you want to do this, then you should take out & pay for advertising space on AgingCare, like many many vendors do, otherwise it is inappropriate.
Excellent - very objective - and a good plan I believe for use of funds - The reverse mortgage program is now enjoying some positive feedback in the news/media and I believe more will have this heart to heart with their parents and come to the same conclusion. Equity is the largest part of one wealth (usually) and most are not fully prepared for retirement - thus accessing this equity is crucial and the how is with a reverse mortgage.

I think you have to be VERY careful with the reverse mortgage and very realistic as to what it means to take on debt later on in life. The mortgage has to be repaid eventually.The entire principal, interest and fees must be paid in order for the heirs can take possession of the home. If the heirs cannot pay off the debt, the house will have to be sold. The one good thing is that if the house is sold for below the debt, FHA will pay the difference if it is a federally backed RM. Please go over the agreement to see what the policy reads and your responsibility is.

If you do a RM there are 4 things that can be a problem for compliance and cause the RM to be due and payable in full:
- FAILURE TO PAY - property taxes, homeowners /flood/ wind insurance. One issue with RM is that often the homeowner - since the house is paid off - has let their insurance slide or is too low. So instead of the homeowner paying $ 300 a year for insurance, they now have to pay significantly higher rates because there is now a mortgage on the property. Or instead of selecting their own insurer, the insurance is folded into the RM and uses insurers that the RM selects which can drive up the fees and costs. If you don't pay the taxes & insurance, etc., your mortgage can go into default.
- MOVING TO A NEW RESIDENCE- if reverse mortgage property stops being your primary, you are out of compliance with loan. So if you move into a NH, you are required to pay your loan.
- BEING OUT OF THE HOME FOR MORE THAN 1 YEAR - the loan will come due. Most policies have this.
- ALLOWING THE PROPERTY TO DETERIORATE - being away for a while, like a trip or cruise is allowed but if the property gets run down while you are away, the loan could be called in. After Hurricane Katrina, some homeowners who had RM, got letters w/detailed questionnaire as to the status of the home, how it was being secured, status of repairs, utility information, how long until they were back in the house full-time.....this was all about calling in loans that were in areas with uncertainty. And Katrina was in 2005 before the real estate market tanked.

I think that RM can work for young 62-70 year olds that are in good health, have a home that they own outright, with a property value of 300K or more; do the RM as a line of credit with a variable interest rate; and that the property is in a neighborhood that will likely increase significantly in value over the next 10 - 20 years and they are committed to living in the home for those 10 - 20 years. So that the $$ owed for the RM & fees can be paid off in full from the sale of the house & perhaps the value has increased so that there is even money left.