Geraldine Bates lost her husband to kidney failure last year. Now, she has fallen behind on her mortgage payments and is terrified that she will lose her home in Jacksonville, Fla.
Bates, 70, is caught in a foreclosure trap that is ensnaring widows across America: She cannot get help lowering her payments until her name is added to the mortgage, but she must be current on payments for that to happen.
“I keep praying,” said Bates, who is fighting with the bank to stay in the four-bedroom house.
Just as the housing market is recovering, a growing group of homeowners — widows older than 50 whose husbands alone were holders of the mortgage — are losing their homes to foreclosure because of the glitch.
In the latest chapter of the foreclosure crisis, homeowners older than 50 are falling into foreclosure at the fastest pace of any age group, according to nationwide data, in part because women are outliving their spouses and are unable to cope with cuts in their pensions, ballooning medical costs — and the fine print on their mortgages.
While there are no exact measures of how many widows have entered foreclosure, AARP data show the rate of foreclosures among people older than 50 increased 23 percent from 2007 to 2011, resulting in 1.5 million foreclosures.
A few lenders have tweaked their procedures to navigate the problem, and housing advocates are petitioning the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to devise guidelines for lenders in situations that involve surviving relatives. Banks say that while the volume of delinquent mortgages means they need a blanket policy to cover all homeowners who are behind on their payments, they are willing to work closely with widows.
Still, interviews with elder-care advocates, housing lawyers and borrowers suggest that the problem is spreading. Legal aid offices in California, Florida, Ohio and New York say it is among the top complaints from clients. Billy Howard, a consumer lawyer in Tampa, Fla., said he had more than two dozen cases involving widows, up from virtually none before 2007.
“These women are essentially invisible,” said Gladys Gerson, a lawyer for Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida.
Housing advocates say that their clients, especially if one spouse experienced a prolonged illness, are thousands of dollars behind.
“Surviving spouses are trapped without a clear way to preserve their home,” said Arabelle Malinis, a lawyer at Housing and Economic Rights Advocates in California.