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Widows face foreclosure due to mortgage Catch-22


Two years after he died of cancer, Dorothy Jackson's late husband received a letter from the bank.

"Dear David A. Jackson Deceased," the letter said. It was from a Wells Fargo "home preservation specialist," offering advice if Mr. Jackson had a "change in circumstances."

The bank said it was open to helping Jackson's late husband of five decades, a retired Tampa police sergeant whose death kept Dorothy, 72, from making her monthly payments of more than $2,000.

But the bank refused to talk to her. Jackson was told her attempts to shrink payments to half that size, closer to what she could afford, would go nowhere.

The reason: Nearly a decade earlier, though both she and her husband were named on the home's title, only David signed the loan.

What might look like a small paperwork oversight became for Jackson and other widows a seemingly insurmountable snare.

The bank would not let her take over the loan unless its payments were up to date. But to afford that, Jackson needed different loan terms — which the bank would not provide unless she took over the loan.

Stymied by the Catch-22 and pestered by debt collectors six times a day, Jackson walked to her bookcase and relayed the bank's offer to her husband's urn.

"Honey, if you want to resurrect yourself to come out and refinance our home," she said, "you go for it."

Lawyers and legal-aid counselors call it a sad reality of the housing crisis: Widows refused loan help and forced into foreclosure in the years after their spouses' death.

For distressed homeowners, the bureaucratic obstacle course of refinancing in an age of tight credit is hard enough to navigate on its own. But for grieving widows with finances already in disarray, the loan maze and its accompanying fears of losing a family home have proven a demoralizing shock.

"It's a clash of circumstances that couldn't be any more devastating," said Kathleen Mullin, the executive director of St. Petersburg-based Gulfcoast Legal Services.

"This problem and the web of paperwork causes so much stress that it can impact (widows') health, impact their well-being, to the point where they don't even know what to do. They're just frozen."

Widows caught in this runaround, counselors said, never realized the damage it could cause if only their husband signed the mortgage note. They did not expect it would prevent them from a loan modification that could allow them to keep paying and stay in their homes.

There's no public data on how many widows have faced this frustration. But attorneys and counselors say it is a growing problem for surviving spouses – predominately women – barely seen before the foreclosure crisis began.

Billy Howard, the Morgan & Morgan attorney representing Jackson in a harassment lawsuit against Wells Fargo, said his firm has more than 25 widows with similar problems, up from only a few cases in recent years.

"You've got people who want to be able to pay and think they could afford to stay," said foreclosure defense attorney Mark Stopa, whose firm has about 10 similar cases, up from none a few years back, "and the bank tells them it is simply not possible."

The trap has proven particularly troublesome in Florida, with high rates of home distress and more than 1 million widows and widowers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey.

The rates of foreclosure and serious mortgage delinquencies, a warning sign for distress, grew faster for seniors than homeowners younger than 50 between 2007 and 2011, AARP data shows.

Included in that group are many widows on fixed incomes, who must contend not just with health care and funeral expenses but with paying off a retirement home, alone.

Karine Gialella, a Gulfcoast Legal Services attorney, said she worked with a St. Petersburg widow in her 80s who found the only way to avoid foreclosure was to file for bankruptcy.

Wells Fargo has filed no motions and would not comment on Jackson's case. Spokeswoman Veronica Clemons said the bank "can provide methods for affordable home options" for widows unnamed on a note, but would not share details.

"We review all applicable, affordable options for customers facing financial difficulties," Clemons wrote in an e-mail to the Times, "and are committed to working with our customers on finding appropriate solutions."

Other banks say they have designed ways for widows to assume the loan and dodge foreclosure. Bank of America offers to transfer loans to widows quickly and with less paperwork after a loan modification is approved, a spokeswoman said. And JPMorgan Chase offers to add a widow's name at the same time it modifies the note.

But programs like those often require the loans to be owned by the bank. If, for instance, that loan was one of millions sold to investors or the nation's biggest mortgage buyer, Fannie Mae, widows behind on payments would not qualify.

Though due-on-sale clauses allow lenders to demand full payment when a loan changes hands, federal law prohibits calling in a loan just because a widow took it over. But banks have argued in court that they're demanding payment because of the default, not the death, said Matt Bayard, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami. Some judges have agreed.

Some attorneys said they have won modifications for widows after submitting death certificates and proof the surviving spouse could continue payments.

But the process can take months of phone-bank hassles and volleys of paperwork for widows with outside help, leaving many counselors to worry about widows going it alone.

"Most of these banks don't even talk to them seriously unless they get a lawyer," Howard said.

Jennifer Newton, a consumer protection attorney with Florida Legal Services, which provides legal aid to Floridians with low incomes, said the problem is partially an outgrowth of banks' stricter lending demands.

Banks are reluctant to switch over loans to homeowners, like struggling widows, without good credit or solid finances. "No one's getting a refinancing right now unless they have substantial equity," Newton said.

Others say the blame lies with banks' "factory-like" loan modification process, in which home­owners are assessed en masse based on checklists that allow little nuance for widows' special circumstances.

"The servicers are big, complicated bureaucracies, who have nothing at stake to get people loan mods," said Diane Thompson, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

Dorothy Jackson, who owed more than $200,000 on her mortgages, moved to a Lutz apartment in 2010, a few months after her husband died. "I felt I was cheating living in a place I wasn't paying for," she said.

In the two years it took the bank to foreclose, thieves broke into Jackson's vacant home and someone also stole trees her husband and late son had once planted in the yard, said Jackson's daughter, Kimberly Fernandez.

In October, Jackson told a Hills­borough County court room of Wells Fargo's letter, and read her own to a judge. "Dave and I loved that place. It was home to us, my children, my grandchildren," she said. "Now I have nothing but a broken heart."

Earlier this month, the home was sold at a foreclosure auction for $111,900. It was one of 81 scheduled that day.

Drew Harwell can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.