ORLANDO, Fla. – March 26, 2015 – A recent knock on the door of Sheridon and Susan Turner's suburban home delivered news that shocked the elderly couple: Wells Fargo was suing them for foreclosure on a home they sold 21 years ago.

The Turners sold the house on Hidden Lake Drive in Sanford to homebuyer Alton Ricks in July 1994 and transferred their assumable mortgage to him as part of the sale, which was processed by an Orlando real estate law firm. Until the process server knocked on their door, they had heard nothing for decades about the house, the mortgage, or the man who bought it from them.

"Needless to say, we were shocked," said Sheridon Turner, 72. "That lawsuit could ruin my credit. If we had the mortgage, why wouldn't the bank send me a notice when someone stopped making the payments last August?"

Several days after getting an inquiry about the foreclosure from the Orlando Sentinel, Wells Fargo responded that it sued him for foreclosure because he was a "borrower of record." But, a spokesperson added, the lender will not hold him financially liable for the debt or reflect the foreclosure on his credit reports.

Assumable mortgages have barely had a pulse in recent years because mortgage interest rates have been at historic lows. Typically, only the Federal Housing Administration and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offer mortgages than can be transferred from a seller to a homebuyer. For qualified buyers, the transfers can offer buyers lower rates when rates are rising. They also save buyers from paying as much in closing costs.

The Turners' credit report from Equifax shows they have no outstanding liens or mortgages. The retirees have no mortgage on their 1,800-square-foot home in the Deer Run community of south Seminole County. Wells Fargo sent them no notices to indicate payments were late for the mortgage on the house in Sanford. In fact, the lender offered the Turners a $100,000 line of credit just weeks before filing foreclosure papers against them.

The puzzling turn comes eight years into a foreclosure crisis that has stressed banks. Lenders' well-documented inability to produce mortgage documents contributed to a months-long moratorium on processing foreclosures in the courts starting in the fall of 2010.

If Wells Fargo is able to foreclose on the house and take title, it could profit from the foreclosure because the mortgage debt still owed on the property is $35,797 and the property is worth an estimated $80,000 to $130,000, according to tax rolls and the real estate company Zillow.

Finding the trail of mortgage paperwork has proven challenging. Ricks, who bought the house from the Turners, died six years ago at the age of 83. It's not clear who paid the mortgage following his death. The Turners' daughter, who lived in the Sanford house with her husband and child, relocated to New Jersey and may have had a copy of the mortgage documents but the storage unit where she kept her personal belongings was flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, said an attorney for the family.

Turner said he will believe that he and his family members are off the hook when he sees the legal documents confirming that. Turner said this week that Wells Fargo called him to say they will not try to force him to pay the mortgage debt. He said he referred them to his attorney.

Nishad Khan, the attorney for the Turners, said it's unrealistic to think that property owners would have to keep documents for decades on a house closing handled by real estate attorneys.

"This is not your typical foreclosure," he said recently.

Copyright © 2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.), Mary Shanklin. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.