Dear Liz: We took a home equity loan against our house to open a business in 2006. We also ran up credit card debt for the business. The business went under, and we're struggling to pay off the loan, which is $150,000 (a $1,150 payment every month), and the credit card debt, which we got down to about $20,000 from $37,000. Is there any way to get relief from the loan since it was a legitimate business (a franchise we bought from another franchisee)? We don't know what to do and have been taking money out of our savings to pay the debt.
Answer: Your home equity lender doesn't care whether you spent the money on a "legitimate business" or an around-the-world cruise. The lender expects to get paid, and chances are it will, since you secured the loan with your house. Failing to pay a home equity loan can trigger a foreclosure.
If you have equity in your home, you may be able to do a cash-out refinance of your current mortgage to pay off the loan. You'd wind up with a bigger primary mortgage, but a longer payback period and a lower interest rate should reduce your total debt payments. Another option is to sell your home to pay off the debt so you can start over.
What you shouldn't do is dip into your savings without a real strategy for resolving this debt. A session with a fee-only financial planner could help you understand your options. The planner also may suggest a consultation with a bankruptcy attorney.
A duty to help parents in old age?
Dear Liz: I read with interest your recent column about the filial obligation law possibly coming into effect in California. I hope this is true. I have three grown daughters who make terrific money and who will not offer a pittance to me. I live on Social Security, period. I could really use a few hundred dollars a month to supplement. They had a glorious childhood and this is really sad and inexplicable. I want to contact someone involved with this law, if possible. I am puzzled and hurt. More than money, this situation has a strange malignity to it.
Answer: Currently, California's filial responsibility law — which makes adult children responsible for supporting their indigent parents — isn't being enforced. When similar laws in other states have been invoked, it's typically because the parent is receiving governmental aid or has racked up a bill with a nursing home that wants to get paid.
One of the reasons the laws aren't enforced is because most people feel an obligation toward their parents. The fact that your daughters apparently don't indicates that there's either something missing in their characters or in your characterization of the situation.
Here's another perspective:
Dear Liz: I am 67 and live in a retirement home. I strongly feel that children should not have to take care of their parents. We all have time to save for our own futures. I left a marriage with very little other than a small child. We did lots of free events together because there was not money to spend. I did immediately start saving for retirement and her college. It all worked out, but had it not, I would not expect her to support me in my old age. I chose to get pregnant and have her.... She did not chose to have me!
Answer: Thanks for sharing your experience. My guess is that if your financial life had not worked out — if you hadn't been able to save enough or if your savings had been wiped out — your daughter happily would have stepped up to help if she could. People who do their best to take care of themselves often find the support that isn't offered to those who don't.