Team of pros can fix Mom’s money woes

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Dear Debt Adviser,
Would my 82-year-old mother be better off filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy for $60,000 in credit card debt or doing a reverse mortgage to pay it off? 

She already has a home equity line for $60,000 that she used to pay down previous debt. If she declares bankruptcy, can she later do a reverse mortgage if she can’t live on what’s left over? 

Dad always took care of their bills and she’s made some bad mistakes financially since he died. I live across the country and didn’t realize how bad it was until it all started catching up to her as she ran out of money in savings. Thank you for any help.
— Jana

Dear Jana,
My mother will be 87 this year, so I understand your concern and desire to help. Just be sure that your assistance does not include any direct financial help from you unless you can afford to make it a gift, not a loan or an advance on a possible legacy.

You can’t help her get out of a hole if you are standing in one of your own. Helping her choose the right professionals may be the best way you can assist her.

You stated that your father handled the finances before his death. It is not unusual for the surviving spouse who had little or very limited knowledge of the family’s finances to struggle after the death of a spouse. Getting control of the situation will be a great relief to your mother and to you.

If this is the second time that your mother has accumulated substantial debt, she is in desperate need of a financial counselor. I recommend that she or both of you (but not just you alone) contact a qualified credit counseling organization that will help her develop a monthly budget so that her spending does not unintentionally exceed her income.

I always recommend a counseling agency that is accredited by an independent third party, such as the Council on Accreditation or the International Organization for Standardization.

Next, I suggest using a reverse mortgage counselor to find out what amount she may be eligible for and if it will be enough to pay off her debts. She can find both types of counselors at Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agenciesor

If you choose an agency that is also approved by the Executive Office for U.S. Trustees, she can also get the required pre-filing bankruptcy counseling at the same place. She may not file, but the counseling will help clarify her options.

Once she knows her options and has a spending plan in place, I want her to speak with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. If your mom has used a local lawyer over the years, that might be the logical place to start for a referral.

From what you have told me, it sounds as though a Chapter 7 bankruptcy may be better for her.

A Chapter 13 will require her to make payments for the next five years and live on a very tight budget. If her income increases, she’ll have to increase her payments. A Chapter 7 will wipe out most consumer debts if she is eligible, so she can start with a cleaner slate.

Only her attorney can give her legal advice and having all the information from the counselors will make it much easier for her to make a decision.