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Q: I am an investigator for a nonprofit organization that investigates financial crimes against the elderly. I've been working with a 76-year-old woman who was financially abused by her son.

Her son asked her to co-sign on two credit cards and for a Toyota truck, which she did. She believed he would honor his word and pay the bills. She had no idea he had over 130 civil actions against him in San Mateo County (Calif.) alone, his home was recently foreclosed on, and he has liens and judgments levied against him in the millions! He charged up the credit cards plus one more he opened without her knowledge, and then he declared bankruptcy, leaving her with the debts.

My client was left with a $15,000 debt from the two co-signed credit cards, an $11,000 bill from Toyota and a $5,000 balance on the fraudulent card. So far, we have had the $5,000 credit card balance that was opened without her knowledge dismissed due to fraud, and we have negotiated the Toyota bill down by half and transferred it to another card.

That leaves us with just over $20,000 in credit card debt to deal with ($15,000 on two cards, plus half the Toyota balance now on another card).

A bankruptcy attorney looked at her case and said if she filed for Chapter 13, her court-ordered payments would be at least $500 per month, plus she would have to pay attorney's fees and have the bankruptcy on her record. He also could not guarantee that she would not be forced to sell her home, which she has a good amount of equity in.

This woman is living on supplemental Social Security income and unemployment benefits, which barely cover her living expenses. Her unemployment will run out in about eight months. She walks with a cane and has some health issues, but she's looking for work so she can remain in her home and pay these bills.

Is there anything you recommend? I truly appreciate any help that you can provide.

A: I am so impressed that a 76-year-old woman who walks with a cane is looking for work so she can pay her bills. I don't know where her son got his irresponsible ways, but it certainly wasn't from her!

You've done a good job so far of getting the $5,000 on the fraudulent card dismissed and negotiating the Toyota payment down. As you discovered, filing for bankruptcy isn't always cost-effective, especially with a relatively small debt of $20,000. The costs and effort involved are too great in proportion to the benefits, and according to the attorney who looked at the facts, she would probably have to pay back the debts anyway.

She may have a good case for negotiating down the $15,000 debt on the co-signed cards. Negotiating debt does affect a person's credit score, and there's no guarantee of success. With her low income, however, it's worth a try. (See "Credit card debt: How to cut a deal.")

What your client needs now is income. Here are my top three recommendations for where to get it:

Her son. He got her into this mess. He can help get her out. The fact that he just filed for bankruptcy is good news for your client -- most or all of his many other debts are gone. He can afford to focus his energies on helping Mom.

Maybe he's not a bad person. He's not the first businessperson to become overextended in this recession. When people can't pay their bills, they start shuffling money from one place to another, never believing they won't be able to make good. Does he know how desperate her situation is? Letting him know and giving him a chance to repay his mother would be the best thing for him and his own self-respect at this point.

A reverse mortgage. She has equity in her home, but with her low income and high debt levels, she's not going to have much luck getting a home equity line of credit. A reverse mortgage might be the solution. And instead of adding a bill to her budget, she can have a steady stream of income to make her life more comfortable and secure.

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The biggest downside of a reverse mortgage is that it can be expensive to set up. It generally costs a little more than getting a home loan of the same size. It's a far better option, however, than losing her home because she can't pay her bills.

Earned income. She's already working on this, and good for her! I would encourage her to look into self-employment as well. Depending on her skills and interests, she could teach community classes, offer after-school child care or tutoring, check in on housebound elderly people or do copy editing, to name just a few ideas.

A good credit counselor, from a nonprofit credit-counseling agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, can help your client go through her options and decide what to do. The counselor may even be able to help her negotiate her credit card debt balance and interest rates.

This woman is fortunate that you are helping her. I hope her financial situation, not to mention her relationship with her son, will be on the road to recovery soon.