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Widows, divorcees struggle with foreclosure rules, consumer group finds

Lenders and mortgage companies have been doing a better job in recent years helping homeowners avoid foreclosures, but widows, as well as other surviving family members, and the recently divorced continue to struggle to stay in their homes, according to a new report from the National Consumer Law Center.

The Boston-based consumer group estimates that thousands of homeowners, usually women who didn’t sign the original loan documents, are having trouble getting access to relief that new federal guidelines have provided other homeowners since the recent foreclosure crisis.

The center’s network of lawyers and housing counselors reports that while other foreclosure-related problems have declined, this remains an area of growing concern. It can still take years, reams of paperwork, and thousands in additional costs for spouses facing death, divorce, or domestic violence, who are seeking a loan modification to stay in the house, said Alys Cohen, a staff attorney at the consumer law center and author of the report.

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“Every month of delay increases the interest that a homeowner owes, increases the fees on the loan amount, and decreases the chances of a loan modification,” Cohen said.

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The law center is urging the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to adopt rules that would expand protections to others who may have homeownership interest in a property, aside from just the primary borrower.

Consumer advocates argue that the rules will make it easier for homeowners who obtain a home in a divorce or a family transfer to communicate with the lender and mortgage servicer. Currently, mortgage companies deal solely with the person who signs on the loan, and they require documentation to verify that a spouse or family member now owns the house.

The Consumer Mortgage Coalition, a Virginia-based industry trade association, said companies are trying to protect the privacy of the borrower by requiring extensive verification.

“The judge may say you have to give away the house in divorce,” said Chris Harrington, counsel for the trade group. “But you can’t just give away your debts, too.”

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Federal regulators instead should do more to educate borrowers that they can fill out paperwork allowing lenders and mortgage companies to disclose financial and loan information to family members or spouses, Harrington said.

Many borrowers aren’t aware that they can agree to disclosures so family members and spouses communicate with lenders and avoid undue hardships after a death, Harrington said.

Still, Crystal Ortiz, 32, a Springfield school bus driver, said family situations can be complicated. Her father inherited the family’s two-story home after her grandmother died in 2010, and in 2013 he gave it to her just before he died. Ortiz said she didn’t realize until after she moved in and made repairs that there was a mortgage on the property taken out to help her grandmother pay her medical bills.

It took months and interventions from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office to get the bank to talk to her and accept that her grandmother and father were dead and no longer owners of the house, Ortiz said.

And she has been working with a Legal Aid attorney for several months trying to get the loan modified so her monthly payments are affordable and she and her husband and two children can remain in the house. In the meantime, the original $50,000 loan that her grandmother took out has more than doubled with interest payments and late fees to about $101,000.

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“Everytime we get so far and we get kicked back a couple of notches,” Ortiz said. “I want to pay my mortgage and live like a normal person.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.