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Dear Liz: My daughter co-signed a student loan for a friend who failed to pay the debt. Now my daughter cannot refinance her home because this loan appears on her otherwise very good credit reports. She has been getting calls from a collection agency.
I called the agency to discuss what it would cost to get her released from all liability regarding this loan, and they gave me an offer of $13,000 to satisfy the debt, which is now $35,000. I countered with $9,000, since the original loan was just $15,000, but they refused. My daughter is unhappy about paying anything, since her ex-friend is a gainfully employed attorney. Is it good business to pay what the collection agency is asking, or should I continue to negotiate?
“Lenders almost never settle for less than the outstanding principal balance of a defaulted student loan, so that may be the best she can get,” Kantrowitz said. “It may be the case that they are offering her a low settlement amount to release her from her obligation and then will go after her former friend for the remaining debt. When there are two borrowers on the hook, one borrower reaching a settlement does not cancel the debt. It merely releases that borrower from her obligation.”
Your daughter should have the settlement offer reviewed by an attorney, Kantrowitz said. The attorney should verify that the collection agency has the authority to settle the debt, and any agreement should list all of the loans involved.
“I’ve seen cases where a borrower thought she was getting a settlement of all the loans,” Kantrowitz said, “but the settlement was just for some of the loans.”
Ideally, the settlement agreement would require the lender to stop reporting the default and delinquencies to the credit bureaus, which would remove the stain from her credit reports. Not all lenders will agree to such a condition, Kantrowitz said, but removal would be better for her credit than simply having the debt reported as “satisfied.”
Also, the agreement should require that the lender provide a “paid in full” statement to your daughter as proof her debt has been settled, Kantrowitz said.
“She should keep this statement forever,” Kantrowitz said, “as defaulted loans have a tendency to resurrect themselves from time to time, [such as when] a bank reloads their database from old backup tapes [or] someone reviewing old records discovers the original promissory note.”
An attorney also could advise your daughter about taking further steps, such as suing the former friend for repayment or reporting the issue to the state bar, which has standards of professional conduct that may be violated by an unpaid debt.
I’m hearing too many older people espouse the view that college degrees aren’t as valuable these days because more people have them. They need an Econ 101 review. It’s true that the price or value of something may drop if the supply increases—but only if the demand for that thing does not increase as well.
In the case of college degrees, demand has risen dramatically. Part of that is because so many jobs that didn’t require degrees have been made obsolete by technology or been outsourced overseas. (When Grandpa says he knows lots of people who made good livings without post-high-school training, ask him what they did—and if those factories and union jobs still exist.)
But employers are pickier as well, using college degrees as a screening device for jobs that in the past didn’t require them.
It’s true that incomes for college graduates dropped during recent economic hard times and unemployment rose. But the situation was a lot worse for folks without a college degree, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report released yesterday.
Back to supply and demand: The demand for post-secondary educations helped push up the net cost of college during the 2000s. The College Board says the net price of college tuition (the sticker price minus financial aid) rose 75% between 2002 and 2011.
But now demand seems to be softening, according to a Moody’s Investor Service report, thanks to a tough economy and a smaller pool of high school students. As a result, more schools are freezing tuition costs or at least holding down the increases and offering more financial aid. That’s good news for those heading off to college in coming years.
None of this means a college degree is worth any price. Too many families are overdosing on debt to get educations they really can’t afford. Getting a good value also requires college students to pick their majors carefully, since some degrees are worth a lot more than others.
But college degrees are and will remain all but essential in the 21st century if you want to get ahead financial, or even just remain in the middle class. That wasn’t true in Grandpa’s day, but it’s true now.
Dear Liz: We have a family member who recently was approved by Social Security for a complete disability claim. This person will never work again but has an outstanding student loan. The lender has a formal mechanism to apply for loan forgiveness, but is refusing to accept medical documentation of the disability. What appeal process is there and how can we force them to act? Do we need to retain legal counsel and incur additional expense to enforce a legal process and achieve loan forgiveness?
Answer: Federal student loans offer a “total and permanent disability discharge” that forgives outstanding education debt. You can find the rules and an application at DisabilityDischarge.com.
The rules for private student loans, however, vary by lender. Four lenders — Sallie Mae, New York Higher Education Services Corp., Discover and Wells Fargo — offer a discharge for total and permanent disability that is similar to the federal one, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb.com financial aid sites. The Sallie Mae discharge is also provided on loans made through lenders that market the Sallie Mae loans, such as Commerce Bank, Fifth Third Bank and Regions Bank, Kantrowitz said.
Other lenders do not offer such a discharge, but all have a compassionate review process for their private student loans, he said.
“Borrowers in a difficult financial situation, or their family or other representatives, should contact the lender that holds the loan directly,” Kantrowitz said. “The call center staff are not always familiar with the compassionate review process.”
Lenders are generally more likely to cancel some or all of the debt, or at least reduce the interest rate, in a situation that permanently affects the borrower’s ability to repay, Kantrowitz said. They are less likely to make an adjustment when the loan was cosigned and the cosigner is capable of repaying the debt.
“But it varies,” Kantrowitz said. “I’ve seen some cases in which the borrower was military and killed in action where the lender forgave the loans even though the cosigners were capable of repaying the debt. Another example involved a mother whose daughter dropped dead on an athletic field and the mother’s anguish was palpable in the letter to the lender.”
Debt cancellation comes with another issue: taxes. Forgiven debt is typically treated as taxable income by the IRS. Your family member may be able to avoid the taxes if he or she is insolvent, but a tax professional should be consulted.
Dear Liz: Thank you for your response to the reader who complained that college students who received student loans were getting a handout. You did a great job of highlighting the challenges today’s students face, but you didn’t talk about the main underlying cause. This is the defunding of state universities by state governments. In Oregon, for example, the state has gone from funding over 50% of the costs to current funding of 6%. The difference has been made up by tuition hikes and increasing the proportion of out-of-state (and foreign) students who pay much higher tuition. This is part of the reason that students are crowded out of classes. In Oregon, the medical school found it was better off giving up all state aid and going it alone. Other universities in Oregon are considering taking the same action. Schools founded with state money and supported for years with tax money will no longer be operated for Oregon students. They will be more like private schools, perhaps moving out of the reach of middle-class students. So the answer to the reader is that she did get government help to get through school, help that is now curtailed so students have to finance it themselves.
Answer: The reader didn’t specify what type of college she attended. But the withdrawal of state government funding in recent years has definitely made public college educations more expensive for many students. Meanwhile, many private schools have expanded their financial and merit aid budgets so that some students can attend a private college at a lower net cost than what they would pay for a public school.
Dear Liz: I’m in my 50s. My kids have college loan debts that might total more than $200,000. I allowed them to take out loans because I expected to inherit $300,000 to help them pay off the debt. Now that inheritance will not happen.
I have $250,000 saved for retirement. When I’m 58 1/2 years old, I would like to pull that money out and pay some or all of these debts. Or use home equity. I’ve recently been downsized in employment, but I am looking to increase my income so I can help with their debt. Advice?
Answer: If your goal is to impoverish yourself so your kids will have to take care of you in your old age, by all means proceed with your plan. Otherwise, you need to rethink this.
You’ve been laid off in the middle of what should be your peak earning years. Older workers often have a tougher time than younger ones finding replacement jobs, even in a better economy than this one. You may not be able to replace your former income, which means you may not be able to add much to the amount you’ve already saved. You should be conserving your resources, including your home equity, and not squandering it repaying debts that aren’t yours.
And “squandering” is the right word. You may be able to avoid paying federal and state tax penalties on withdrawals under certain conditions; distributions made after age 59 1/2 avoid the penalties, as do those made if you’re “separated from service” if the job termination occurred in or after the year you turn 55. But you’ll still owe income taxes on the withdrawal, and those can be considerable.
Your children are the ones who will benefit from their educations. Those educations should allow them to earn incomes to repay these loans. The amount of debt they’ve accrued might be excessive — you didn’t specify how many kids, or whether this debt is being incurred pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees. Ultimately, though, they will be in a better position to pay the debt than you are.
If you promised them help you can’t deliver, sit down with them now to break the bad news and strategize on how they can finish their educations without incurring substantially more debt.
Your story also should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone counting on an inheritance to pay future bills. Until the money is in your bank account, it’s not yours and shouldn’t be part of your financial planning.
Dear Liz: I am grandmother to two girls ages 10 and 14. I contribute to their Section 529 college funds and pay for expenses such as dental bills, dance lessons and so on. Is there a way I can deduct these contributions from my income tax?
Answer: Most states offer at least a partial tax deduction for 529 college plan contributions, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the financial aid sites FinAid and FastWeb. The exceptions are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee, which have state income taxes but no deduction; and Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming, which don’t have state income taxes.
To get a deduction, you typically have to contribute to the plan offered by your home state rather than ones offered by other states. For more details, visit www.finaid.org/savings/state529deductions.phtml.
In general, you can’t take deductions for other expenses paid on behalf of your grandchildren. (If they’re your dependents — they live with you and you provide more than half their support — you could claim exemptions and possibly tax credits, but that doesn’t sound like the case here.) However, any medical or tuition expenses you pay directly on their behalf don’t count toward your annual gift tax exclusion, as discussed here last week.
Dear Liz: I read your response to the person questioning the rationale behind taxpayer-supported federal student loans. Your response was well written, but do you have any information about how much money is owed to the government for student loans and what percentage of all the loans are actually paid back in full? You mentioned that the government can garnish wages and Social Security checks and seize tax refunds, but does the government follow through and hold these people accountable? Does the government have personnel to do this or is this just a threat?
Answer: Millions of unhappy student loan borrowers can assure you the government’s considerable powers to collect defaulted student loans are much more than a threat. In addition to its own collection activities, the U.S. Department of Education also hires a number of private collection agencies to help recoup what’s owed.
As a result, the government collects more than 100 cents on every defaulted dollar once accumulated interest and penalties are included, according to the Education Department’s most recent report. On a net present value basis — when future collections are discounted back to today’s dollars — the government recovers about 80% of the defaulted debt.
Decades ago, it was possible to skip out on federal student loan debt without serious consequences. Public outrage over that fact led to much stronger collection efforts. That has resulted in the federal government recovering about $10 billion in defaulted student loan debt every year, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb financial aid sites.
Dear Liz: I am increasingly annoyed by the entitlement attitude of today’s students. Why should the taxpayers (me) pay to educate somebody else’s children? I remember when there was no such thing as a student loan. If I wanted to go to college and didn’t have the money for tuition, I delayed starting college until I had worked for a year and saved up the money. Many of my friends did this, as did I. Now these kids stand around with their hands out looking for somebody to bring them their education on a silver platter. I wish you would say something about this in your column.
Answer: Let’s start with the obvious, which is that an education costs a heck of a lot more than it did when you were in college.
The College Board reports that a student attending an in-state, four-year public university needs to budget an average of $22,261 to pay for the 2012-13 year. Which means the total cost to get an undergraduate degree would be about $90,000, assuming he or she can get all the required courses in four years (something that’s increasingly difficult because of state budget cuts in education).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t many jobs these days that would enable someone (particularly someone without a college degree) to save the full cost of a college education in a single year. Even someone who started out with two years of community college would need to budget about $8,000 for each of those years, according to the College Board, and the total cost of a four-year degree would still be around $60,000. Some people would pay less if they got a lot of financial aid or lived at home, but any way you cut it, the tab is much, much higher than it has been in decades past.
Something else has changed since you were a student, and that’s the importance of having a college education if you want to have a decent financial life and remain in the middle class. In your day, people without college educations — even those without high school diplomas — could find well-paying jobs. Those jobs have increasingly been phased out by technology or they’ve gone overseas. The manufacturing and technical jobs that remain often require at least some post-secondary education. Having a college degree is what having a high school diploma used to be — an essential entry-level credential in many fields.
Our nation and our economy need educated workers if we’re to be competitive in a global economy. It also would help to have an expanding pool of well-paid workers to pay taxes toward things like roads, defense, police and fire protection and Social Security, from which you presumably benefit.
This is why governments promote post-secondary education with a relatively small amount of grants for the needy, and a relatively large amount of loans for everyone else. The first federal student loans were part of the National Defense Education Act of 1958; today, most students borrow at least some portion of their education costs.
You see, most kids (and their parents) aren’t standing around waiting for a handout. Most financial aid these days comes in the form of loans, which have to be paid back. These loans aren’t necessarily cheap — the rate on a Stafford student loan is 6.8%, while graduate and parent PLUS loans have 7.9% rates (plus a 4% origination fee that’s deducted from each disbursement).
If students or their parents default, the government can garnish their wages, seize their tax refunds, take a chunk of their Social Security checks and trash their credit. There is no statute of limitations on federal student loans and only rare relief in Bankruptcy Court, so borrowers can be pursued to their graves for what they owe.
Yes, many families overspend on education and overdose on student loans. The majority, however, graduate with a reasonable amount of debt (about $26,000 on average) that can be repaid from their now-higher earnings. Student loans aren’t a handout — they’re an investment in both the graduate and our economy.
Dear Liz: I am the single mother of four daughters, including one who has a serious heart condition that causes $10,000 to $30,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses each year. These medical bills have caused me to file bankruptcy twice, but the bankruptcies have not wiped out my student loans.
I have qualified for minimum payments and deferments a couple of times but have been on a payment schedule the vast majority of the time. The interest grows faster than I can keep up, and I keep getting deeper into the hole. I am now 51 and have over $45,000 in student loans. After a year and a half of being unemployed, and depleting my retirement funds to pay for COBRA health coverage, I finally found a job — I am making $30,000 a year working for a nonprofit as a social worker — but I still can’t make any progress on these loans.
The only program I can find is one in which I have to make payments, no matter how little I have, for the next 10 years if I continue to work for only nonprofits. No one can explain to me why all the money I have already paid, plus only working for nonprofits, plus my volunteer service over the years, doesn’t count for something. I am holding my breath hoping you might have some suggestions to share.
Answer: The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program you discovered is actually a fairly recent development. Before 2007, people in your situation didn’t have an option to have their balances erased.
It’s unfortunate you didn’t know about the program earlier, since if you’d signed up when it first became available you could be partway through your required payments by now and only a few years away from having your balance forgiven.
But better late than never. The program is ideal for those who have big federal student loan debts and small incomes. If you sign up for the “income-based repayment” option, your monthly payments will be limited to 15% of your “discretionary income,” defined as the amount of your income over 150% of the poverty line for your family. Since the poverty line for a family of five is $27,010 in 2012, your required monthly payment may well be zero. Even if your household is smaller, payments under the program typically are less than 10% of your gross income, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb financial aid sites.
If you didn’t have a public service job, your required repayment period would be 25 years — so you are receiving some credit for your service. Public service jobs include, among others, those in public safety and law enforcement, military service, public health, public education, public interest legal services, social work in public or family service agencies and jobs at tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations. Government employees also are considered to have public service positions, although interestingly enough, time served as a member of Congress doesn’t count.
Dear Liz: Your answer to the parents with $200,000 in student loans for their daughters’ educations was interesting — and cautionary. I wonder, since they mentioned refinancing their home, why not explore using their equity by selling the home and renting?
Depending on the amount they have in the home, they might be able to fund more retirement as well as reduce the loan balance. Also depending on the size of the mortgage, they might be able to rent for the same monthly amount or less. Presumably, their house was big enough for four, but now they could “live well with less.” And be more flexible.
Answer: The writer did mention getting a new mortgage, but didn’t say whether it was a refinance or a modification, or whether the couple had any equity in the home. Although a conventional refinance requires considerable equity, a mortgage modification or a refinance made through the government’s HARP program would not require that they owe less than the house is worth.
If they do have equity, it would be worth considering using at least some of it to alleviate their debt burden and supplement their retirement funds. If they don’t have equity, selling the house might still be an option if they could substantially reduce their living costs. Given that their income plunged by more than half, they would be smart to cut their expenses as far as possible to free up money to save for retirement and pay their debts. Taking such a big step down in their lifestyle might be painful, but it’s often to better to do so now rather than risk being old and broke.