Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary
Columnist

If your parents have financial problems, get the full picture before diving in to help

During a recent online discussion, one reader titled his post “Big, big problem.”

It was not hyperbole. And his problem is one being faced by many adults. They are finding that their parents’ finances are a hot mess. Equally frustrating is the realization by these adult children that they don’t have enough money to fix the problem.

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Here’s the situation with my reader: His parents are in their 70s. They want to sell the family home. But it turns out they owe $230,000 on a house with a market value of about $280,000. They bought it in 1979 for $100,000. Clearly, in the 33 years since then, it should have been paid off.

The reader didn’t say what happened, but I can guess. The parents refinanced and pulled out equity before the housing market collapsed. If they sold it now, where would they live?

And here’s the kicker: The parents owe $100,000 in credit card debt. Yes, you read that right.

“They are drowning in monthly minimums,” the reader said. “Their monthly minimums on credit cards are $3,500 or more. I think they are buying groceries on credit because there is no cash left over after they pay bills.”

So the questions put to me were:

●Is bankruptcy an option? If they filed for bankruptcy, could they keep the house? “They own a few small income-producing properties (also with mortgages). But the income that comes in goes straight out with the credit cards and mortgages.”

●Will credit card companies work with the parents? “By this I mean accept less than 50 percent of what my parents owe them if the other outcome is getting zero?”

If you are in a similar situation, before you do anything, sit down with your parents and get a full picture of everything that is going on. Find out all the expenses and financial obligations they have compared to all the income they have. If you are going to jump in to help, you need to fully understand what you are getting into. With a clear idea of what’s going on, you can explore what options your parents have and then help them set up a long-term financial plan.

First up is the mortgage. Find out if your parents qualify for a mortgage modification. Go to makinghomeaffordable.gov, the federal government’s initiative that helps homeowners get mortgage relief through a variety of programs. On the site, you will find a link to housing counselors approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. You can also call 888-995-4673. Your parents will have to make the call but you should be involved. Go through the checklist provided on link “What You Will Need” so that you can help them gather the information they will need to work with a HUD-approved housing counselor.

As for the credit cards, definitely work alongside your parents to approach the credit issuers and see if they are willing to work out a deal. Getting the companies to accept less than 50 cents on the dollar probably won’t happen, but try nonetheless. If they can’t get a debt reduction plan on their own, go to debtadvice.org. Once on the site, click the link that says “Start Your Counseling Session Online.” I suggest you click all the services for your parent: credit/debt, budgeting, bankruptcy and housing counseling. Then you type in the Zip code for your parents to find a nonprofit credit-counseling agency located in their area.

If they file for bankruptcy, they would have to work with an approved credit-counseling agency anyway. You also should help them find and consult a bankruptcy lawyer. The attorney can advise on whether they can keep their primary home or, for that matter, the income-producing properties should they file for bankruptcy. To search for a bankruptcy lawyer, visit findlaw.com.

It’s sad what’s going on. I continue to hear from so many adult children who face similar predicaments. Their parents were poor money managers, and now the children are put in the position of trying to help clean up the mess. And in this case, the reader says his siblings are either unable or unwilling to help.

“This has been 30-plus years in the making, and Dad is a stubborn spendthrift,” he wrote. “[My siblings and I] would be bankrupted and my parents would not only remain unchanged they would dig an entire new hole in 12 months’ time.”

If your parents are struggling financially, do your best to help as much as you can, but don’t be dragged into that hole with them.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, visit postbusiness.com.

 
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