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Dentist sets up fundraiser to help elderly patient with huge tax debt save her home

Being crippled by debt could send anyone into a deep depression. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to an elderly Fulton County woman on the brink of losing her home.

Luckily, her community stepped in to help by creating a GoFundMe to help pay her debts.

According to the fundraising website, Ethel Callaway’s taxes went from $20 a year in 2014 to nearly $3,000 in 2021 after her homestead exemptions and senior discounts were removed. Now, she owes over $8,000 in back taxes to Investa, a third-party lien holder.

The program was intended to help low-income seniors reduce their tax bills, but it’s actually doing the opposite for some elderly people in the county.

“They said that the home could go up for sale on the steps of the courthouse and I do not want to lose my home,” Callaway told WSB-TV.

After failing to pay her massive property taxes, the 80-year-old widow found herself in serious debt.

Periodontist Dr. Gail McLaurin discovered Callaway’s dilemma while the latter was sitting in her dental chair.

“I’ve learned to listen to my patients, because they tell me what’s wrong,” McLaurin said.

She quickly realized that her patient needed more than just dental help after learning she was on the cusp of losing her home of over 40 years. And it’s all because of a hefty back tax bill that a low-income senior couldn’t possibly afford.

This huge weight on her shoulders forced Callaway to cut back on groceries and live on minimal Social Security benefits.

To help her, McLaurin set up a GoFundMe with a friend named Edie Dreaden.

“We want to get her out of this horrible situation,” they wrote on the fundraiser’s page. “Your gift to this lovely, faithful, 80-year-old widow will pay off the debt owed to Investa Services and clear her liens. Going forward, she should be able to handle her taxes once again.”

The Fulton County Tax Assessor automatically enrolls homeowners qualified for low-income senior homestead exemption. But individuals enrolled must provide tax data and documents every two years to keep it.

If they fail to do so, or if a property owner doesn’t respond to letters advising that a new homestead application must be submitted, Fulton County strips all their homestead exemptions, including city and school exemptions that typically renew automatically. This is because the assessor’s office has no way of knowing if the owner still occupies the property.

According to the GoFundMe, Callaway “was never told that this happened and believed her property tax exemptions were in place, since her situation had never changed.”

That caused her tax bills to go sky high.

“Worry, sleepless nights, tossing and turning,” Callaway said of the massive tax problems she’s facing. “It’s extremely stressful, extremely stressful and depressing and depressing.”

Atlanta legal aid attorney Stacy Reynolds said that “it’s ignoring the whole purpose of why this program was set up.”

Reynolds said she has seen other Fulton County seniors deal with the same predicament.

“It doesn’t make sense and I don’t think it follows the law. Most of the other exemptions say they continue as long as the person is still eligible,” she said.

Nearly 300 people have pitched in to Callaway’s fundraiser. To date, it has raised almost $19,000, which is way past the fundraiser’s $10,000 goal!

The good news is that her homestead exemptions have been restored going forward. Any funds raised above the target amount will be used to repair her home, which has suffered some wear and tear and a leaky roof.

“I’m excited, truly blessed and I feeling so very happy. And I’m just floating along now,” Callaway said.

You may visit this GoFundMe to contribute.

Check out the video below to learn more about this story.

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