How to get out from under a crushing reverse-mortgage debt

A for sale sign in the grass in front of a house
A sign is displayed in front of a home for sale in Prospect Heights, Ill., in 2022. Selling a home is one way to try to get out from under the debt accruing on a reverse mortgage, but you’ll need to get at least 95% of the home’s appraised value.
(Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

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.


Dear Liz: How does the IRS know you sold your house? If you sell and buy another home, must you report it? Most folks I know sell, then buy a more expensive house. Seems like lots of moving parts for the parties, including the IRS, to have to track.

Answer: Not really. The title company or attorney handling the closing on a property sale typically generates a Form 1099 with the sales price of the home. The seller gets a copy and so does the IRS. Sellers who “forget” to account for the proceeds on their tax returns will soon get a reminder from the IRS, which typically just tacks the sale amount onto the sellers’ income and demands its cut, along with penalties and interest.

The Ins and Outs of Trusts

Dear Liz: I liked your answer to the person who wanted to ensure a son from a prior marriage got an inheritance. You mentioned creating a trust so the surviving spouse can get income from the assets but then the son would inherit when that spouse dies. However, what’s to prevent the surviving spouse from using up all the funds so that the son is left with nothing after all?

Answer: These trusts typically put restrictions on how much the surviving spouse would be able to access and in what circumstances. If the surviving spouse is the sole trustee, of course, the temptation to ignore the rules could be great. Alternatively, the ultimate inheritor or a third party can be named as trustee or co-trustee.

But there’s no getting around the fact that the trusts create a conflict between the survivor and the ultimate inheritor. The survivor typically wants as much income as possible from the trust while the inheritor wants the trust to be left alone to grow.

Another issue is taxes. Assets in the trust will get a step-up in tax basis when the first spouse dies, but not when the surviving spouse dies.


Often, the best way to make sure someone gets an inheritance is to make an outright bequest rather than putting the money in a trust. If a surviving spouse needs income from the assets to make ends meet, though, a trust with a responsible trustee can help ensure the ultimate inheritor gets the inheritance that was intended.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you sort through the available options and make the best plan for your loved ones.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner®, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at