OPINION: Elderly couple, behind $1,062 on note, almost sent to the curb

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

This story is like Christmas in July. Or perhaps man-bite-dog: The bank did the right thing — it kept an 80-year-old couple in their home.

The good move cost the bank a ton of cash. But it countered a heartless move earlier on its part.

Oscar and Dorothy Wilson already had one foot out the door of their south suburban Morrow home of 40 years. It was no longer theirs. The home, now worth $200,000-plus, had been sold out from under them on the Clayton County courthouse steps in January. Now they were getting eviction notices.

The couple had fallen several months behind their $118-a-month home equity line and were in arrears a whopping $1,062.45 when Wells Fargo sent them to foreclosure in November.

On Jan. 3, Gwinnett County firm Ace Homes Management, LLC, bought the property for $41,476, a dollar more than what the Wilsons owed the bank. There were no other bidders. The law precludes banks from bidding for more than what is owed them. That meant Ace got a $200,000 home for a fifth of the price.

Two weeks ago, I met Mr. Wilson. He was terrified and overwhelmed. He had piles of mail on his kitchen and dining room tables and his phone rang constantly. There was a second firm involved trying to coax the Wilsons out of their home to avoid an even more pathetic scene.

Mrs. Wilson seemed unconcerned. She sat smiling as her husband explained their predicament. Her name was on the family home and on the equity line; she suffers from dementia. A former nursing supervisor, Dorothy Wilson was the financial steward of the family until her mind failed her. Oscar Wilson was in and out of the hospital during this time.

“This all happened so fast; I couldn’t catch up,” Oscar Wilson told me. “She was hiding mail and I didn’t know where she put it. But it’s not her fault. It’s not her fault.”

Credit: Bill Torpy

Credit: Bill Torpy

Wells Fargo, in a statement, told me, “We stepped in and made dozens of attempts to reach Mrs. Wilson about her missed payments, but our assistance wasn’t accepted.”

Last August, according to bank records, Mr. Wilson told a banker his wife was having “health difficulties.” He asked how to get their account on track.

The next day he drove to a Wells Fargo branch to make a payment of $162.32.

But he did not sign up for a loan modification plan, so the foreclosure continued to hang over their heads. It dropped on them like an anvil three months later.

The road to a digging out came about a month ago when the Wilsons walked into Morrow City Hall, right around the corner from them, and bumped into Mayor John Lampl.

“He said, ‘I need your help; I don’t know where else to turn,’ " Lampl recalled.

Lampl accompanied the Wilsons to magistrate court the next morning and got them a two-week stay from eviction. But at that point, there’s little a magistrate can do.

In Georgia, foreclosures are “non-judicial,” meaning there’s no warm body standing between a homeowner and declaration of a foreclosure. All the bank must do is send a letter to someone four months in default and advertise in a local newspaper for four weeks. Then your belongings are on the way to the curb.

When I first spoke with Lampl, he said the Wilsons were largely out of options and were hoping for a “Hail Mary” pass.

For three months, before Lampl was involved, Atlanta Legal Aid lawyer Rachel Scott was digging into the case. Unfortunately for her — and, of course, the Wilsons — she didn’t hear about it until after the home was sold.

Credit: Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

Scott contacted the bank several times and spelled out the Wilsons’ misfortunes. She was told Wells Fargo would agree to rescind the foreclosure if the buyer, Ace, would agree. But, she added, Ace had a pending eviction against the Wilsons and a contract to resell their (now former) home for $170,000.

Ace, Scott was told, would not rescind for less than the $170,000. Wells Fargo declined to pay that, she said, “and indicated there was nothing further it could do.”

In her wake, attorney Matt Tokajer stepped in. “I haven’t stopped thinking about this case,” he told me two weeks ago. “It seems unconscionable that the bank ordered foreclosure when they knew that there were mental issues.”

As he prepared to throw that legal “Hail Mary” pass and file a “wrongful foreclosure” motion, he knew it would be an uphill, if not futile, battle.

After talking with the mayor, the Legal Aid lawyer and Tokajer, I emailed the bank asking for comment.

The next morning, I dropped off a note at Ace. As I drove home, Tokajer called and asked me to hold off on my column. The bank wanted to work something out.

Thankfully, they did.

“After reviewing all of the unique details of this difficult situation, Wells Fargo decided to repurchase the home and donate it to the Wilsons free and clear of any home equity debt,” Amy Bonitatibus, Wells Fargo’s chief communications officer, told me. “We hope that returning the home to them helps bring a positive conclusion to these challenging circumstances.”

What the bank had to pay Ace is unknown. Neither is saying.

I called Mr. Wilson Tuesday.

“I can hardly talk, I’m so thankful,” he said. “There is a God and people who will help you out.”