What Heirs Need to Know About Reverse Mortgages

Death of the borrower triggers the loan payoff, but the estate and heirs will never owe more than what the home is worth.

Concept art of paperwork for a reverse mortgage
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you have a reverse mortgage, let your heirs know. Soon after you die, your lender must be repaid. Heirs will need to quickly settle on

a course of action.

If one spouse has died but the surviving spouse is listed as a borrower on the reverse mortgage, he or she can continue to live in the home, and the terms of the loan do not change. At the death of the last borrower, though, adult children and other nonspouse heirs must pay off the loan. They can keep the property, sell the property or turn the keys over to the lender—and their decision is "usually driven by whether there's equity left in the property," says Joseph DeMarkey, a principal member of Reverse Mortgage Funding.

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A reverse mortgage allows seniors age 62 or older to tap their home equity. Nearly all reverse mortgages are federally backed Home Equity Conversion Mortgages. The homeowner doesn't make payments on the loan while living in the house, but the loan becomes due at the death of the last borrower.

Heirs get an initial six months to deal with the loan payoff. And it's to their advantage to move as quickly as possible. Until the loan is settled, interest on the balance and monthly insurance premiums will continue to eat into any remaining equity.

The good news for heirs is that reverse mortgages are "nonrecourse" loans. That means if the loan amount exceeds the home's value, the lender cannot go after the rest of the estate or the heirs' other assets for payment. "The estate can never owe more than the value of the property," says Gregg Smith, president and chief operating officer of One Reverse Mortgage.

The difference is covered by federal mortgage insurance, which the borrower pays while holding a HECM. If there is leftover equity after the loan is paid off, that money goes to the estate.

When the last owner dies, the estate's executor should contact the lender. (Lenders keep track of databases that note deaths and will send a notice to heirs if records indicate the last borrower has died.) Loan proceeds disbursed as monthly payments will stop. If the borrower took a line of credit, that line will be closed.

When It Makes Sense to Keep the House or Sell

Within 30 days of notification, the lender will send a federally approved appraiser to determine the home's market value. The amount that's due to the lender is the lesser of the reverse mortgage loan balance or 95% of the appraised market value of the home.

Say the appraiser determines the home is worth $200,000 and the loan balance is $100,000. To keep the house, the heirs need to pay the loan balance of $100,000. If the house is sold, the heirs get any equity above the $100,000 loan balance.

But say the home declined in value during the housing slump and the loan now exceeds the home's appraised value—the home is appraised for $100,000, but the loan balance is $200,000. To keep the home, the heirs will need to pay $95,000—95% of the $100,000 market value. The heir doesn't have to pay the full balance; the government insurance covers the remaining loan amount.

If the heirs decide to sell this house, the home must be listed at a minimum of the appraised value. (The 5% difference helps cover the costs of selling.) Because all sale proceeds go to pay off part of the loan and real estate fees, the estate receives no equity. The government insurance picks up the difference on the loan.

But if there is no potential equity, heirs may decide to simply hand the keys to the lender and avoid the hassle of trying to sell the home. Known as "deed in lieu of foreclosure," the heirs sign the deed over to the lender. "If the property was underwater, the heirs may have no interest in selling it or keeping it," says Diane Coats, senior operational oversight specialist for Generation Mortgage.

Heirs can request up to two 90-day extensions. To get that full year, they must show evidence that they are arranging the financing to keep the house, or they are actively trying to sell the house, such as providing a listing document or sales contract.

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Rachel L. Sheedy
Editor, Kiplinger's Retirement Report