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Dear Liz: We have a son who is a high school junior and who is planning on going to college. We met with a college financial planner who suggest we put money in a whole life insurance policy as a way to help get more financial aid. Is that a good idea?

Answer: Your “college financial planner” is actually an insurance salesperson who hopes to make a big commission by talking you into an expensive policy you probably don’t need.

The salesperson is correct that buying a cash-value life insurance policy is one way to hide assets from college financial planning formulas. Some would question the ethics of trying to look poorer to get more aid, but the bottom line is that for most families, there are better ways to get an affordable education.

First, you should understand that assets owned by parents get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. Some assets, such as retirement accounts and home equity, aren’t counted at all by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. Parents also get to exempt a certain amount of assets based on their age. The closer the parents are to retirement, the greater the amount of non-retirement assets they’re able to shield.

Consider using the “expected family contribution calculator” at FinAid.org and the net cost calculators posted on the Web sites of the colleges your son is considering. Do the calculations with and without the money you’re trying to hide to see what difference the money really makes.

Most families don’t have enough “countable” assets to worry about their effect on financial aid formulas, said college aid expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution.” Those that do have substantial assets have several options to reduce their potential impact, including spending down any custodial accounts, paying off debt and maxing out retirement plan contributions in the years before applying for college.

Another thing to consider is that most financial aid these days comes as loans that need to be repaid, rather than as scholarships or grants that don’t. So boosting your financial aid eligibility could just mean getting into more debt.

Meanwhile, it’s generally not a good idea to buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance. The policy could wind up costing you a lot more than you’d save on financial aid.

If you’re still considering this policy, run the scheme past a fee-only financial planner—one who doesn’t stand to benefit financially from the investment—for an objective second opinion.

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Dear Liz: My wife of 34 years died five years ago. Her father is 94. He has accumulated a large amount of wealth over the last 40 years. I always made a point of staying out of financial discussions between my father-in-law and his daughters. He told us for years that upon his death all his wealth is to be divided between us (my wife and me) and her sister. Recently, a gold digger reappeared on the scene. My father-in-law and his late wife took her in at a young age when her parents died. I don’t know if she was ever formally adopted or not, or how that affects the situation. My question is, do I have any legal rights, upon my father-in-law’s death, to any distribution of his estate if I am not listed in the actual trust or will?

Answers: Your chances of inheriting from your father-in-law may have died along with your wife.

Sons-in-law don’t really have inheritance rights. If your father-in-law dies without an estate plan, state law would dictate who his heirs would be: typically his surviving spouse (if he has one) and any living children. Even his kids would have no legal right to inherit if he has a will or trust that disinherits them.

Estate plans sometimes make provisions for a child’s spouse, particularly if the money eventually will be inherited by the grandchildren. Such a trust might give you the right to income from assets that on your death would go to your wife’s children, for example. If there aren’t grandchildren, though, the money your wife would have inherited may simply go to her sister (and possibly the “gold digger,” as you describe her, if she’s included in the estate plan).

Of course, if the old man likes you, he could make a bequest to you in his will. But you have no legal right to demand that he do so, and any attempt to pressure him could raise the question of who is the actual gold digger here.

Moving student loan debt

Dear Liz: My daughter has $30,000 in student loans from obtaining her masters degree. The loans have about a 7% interest rate. She will be eligible to have $5,000 forgiven if she works five years in a low-income school. Although she is currently so employed, she does not know whether she will stay there for five years. I have a line of credit available with a 4.8% interest rate. It seems to me that she will pay less overall if she uses my line of credit to pay off her student loans and makes the monthly payment on the line of credit. Does she miss out on developing a good credit score by using my credit? Is it worth paying the higher interest rate to develop that credit history?

Answer: There are several reasons not to use your credit line, and they don’t have to do with her credit scores.

The student loans are helping her scores now and will continue to do so even after they’re paid off, since most lenders continue to report closed accounts for years.

If she uses your line of credit, though, she won’t be able to deduct the interest she pays. Student loans provide a valuable “above the line” income adjustment for most borrowers. They don’t have to itemize to take advantage of this adjustment, which is the smaller of $2,500 or the interest actually paid. The ability to take this tax break is phased out in 2013 when modified adjusted gross income is between $60,000 and $75,000 for singles and $125,000 to $155,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Also, your line of credit carries an adjustable rate that can (and likely will) go higher. The rate would have to rise only two percentage points before it equals the fixed rate on her federal student loans. Federal student loans offer a number of other protections, including income-based repayment options, forgiveness after 10 years in public service jobs (after 25 years otherwise) and forbearance or deferral should she experience an economic setback. She can learn more about these options at studentaid.ed.gov.

Finally, if she failed to make payments on your line of credit, your credit scores would be on the line — as would your home, if the account is secured by your home equity.

It’s commendable that you want to help your daughter, but in this case you both may be better off keeping the debt in her name rather than putting it in yours.

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Dear Liz: I currently owe $27,000 in student loans at an 11.5% interest rate. I have excellent credit and about $8,000 in savings and contribute 17% of my income to a workplace retirement plan. Should I invest less in my 401(k) and pay off debt instead? I just got a balance transfer offer for 0% for 15 months with a 3% transaction fee. I’m considering taking $3,000 and putting it toward my high-interest student loan.

Answer: If you had federal student loans, transferring any part of your debt to a credit card would be a bad idea. That’s because federal student loans come with consumer protections that allow you to reduce or even eliminate your payments if you fall on hard economic times. You certainly wouldn’t want to reduce your retirement savings to pay off these flexible, fixed-rate loans.

The higher rate you are paying indicates that you have private student loans, which typically don’t have the same protections and which usually have variable rates that will climb higher when inflation returns.

Credit card debt has similar flaws — plus you would lose the interest rate deduction on any student loans you paid off this way. Instead, you may want to investigate the option of refinancing and consolidating your private student loans with a credit union. Credit unions are member-owned financial institutions that often offer better rates than traditional lenders. One site representing credit unions, CUStudentLoans.org, currently advertises variable rates on consolidation loans that range from just under 5% to just over 7%.

If you continued to make your current payments on a consolidated loan with a lower interest rate, you would be able to pay off your loans years faster — saving on interest without jeopardizing your future retirement.

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Dear Liz: I am almost finished with my associate degree at my local community college and will be starting my undergraduate degree in January. I have been lucky enough to accrue no college debt so far but know I will when I start my bachelor’s degree. I am considering taking out a home equity loan to cover this cost, borrowing around $10,000. I got a great deal on my house and it continues to grow in value even with this economy. Your thoughts on this?

Answer: Home equity loans are actually more expensive than most federal student loans. Home equity loan rates for people with good credit range from 7% to 9% in many areas, while the current rate for direct, unsubsidized federal student loans is 5.41%. Furthermore, home equity loans aren’t as flexible and have fewer consumer protections than federal student loans.

You may initially get a lower rate on a home equity line of credit, but these variable-rate loans easily could get more expensive as interest rates rise.

Not only do federal student loans offer fixed rates, but they provide many affordable repayment options plus deferrals or forbearance if you should lose your job or run into other economic setbacks. You don’t have to demonstrate financial need to get federal student loans, although people with such needs can get subsidized loans with a lower interest rate. Your college’s financial aid office can help you apply.

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Retiree burdened with unpayable student loan debt

Aug 26, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you fielded a query from parents whose son took out student loans in the mother’s name. You wrote, “If your only income is from Social Security and you don’t have any other property a creditor can legally take, you may be ‘judgment proof,’” which means “a creditor wouldn’t be able to collect on a judgment against you.”

I understand this advice was meant for the mom. But could it equally apply to the borrower who benefited from the loan?

In my case, I will be 70 next year and my only income is Social Security. I owe about $80,000 in private student loans and about $80,000 in federal student loans. I can’t afford to pay either loan. Is there hope for me to get out from under this burden by being judgment-proof? Right now, I can’t afford to see a bankruptcy attorney. It is a struggle just to pay the rent and put some food on my table.

Answer: You can’t afford not to see a bankruptcy attorney. Federal student loan collectors have enormous powers to collect, including taking a portion of your Social Security check.

The concept of being “judgment proof” applies to collections of private student loans. Collectors for those loans may be held at bay if you are, indeed, judgment proof. But you really want an experienced bankruptcy attorney to review your situation to make sure that’s the case. Fortunately, many bankruptcy attorneys offer free or discounted initial sessions. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org.

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Dear Liz: Our son went to an expensive private school and ended up with more than $100,000 in federal and private loans by the time he graduated. My wife cosigned a private loan for $25,000 for the first year, and that was the last we heard of any loans until he graduated with a degree in social services. After he was out of school for six months, we started getting phone calls asking for payment. Turns out he electronically signed my wife’s name to the next three years of his student loans.

Just to keep the creditors from harassing us daily, we pay the interest, which is about $1,100 a month and equals two-thirds of my wife’s take-home pay. (I’m disabled and can’t work; she’s 64 and planning to retire soon.) Our son hasn’t paid a dime on any of the debt and seems to think it will disappear if you don’t talk about it. He makes only $15 an hour. He still takes college classes and he thinks that because he is in school, he doesn’t need to pay anything. But the interest is still accruing monthly.

After my wife retires, how much of our Social Security checks can they come after? Can they come after our house? We will be living on Social Security only as we were never fortunate enough to have employers who offered pension plans. I sometimes feel that we will have no real retirement because of this situation. Any suggestions and advice would be appreciated.

Answer: What a mess. If nothing else, your situation can serve as a warning to other families tempted to buy educations they can’t afford. Taking on six-figure debt for an undergraduate degree, let alone one in social services, is nuts. Generally, students shouldn’t borrow more in total than they expect to earn the first year out of school. Also, most people should stick to federal student loans. Using private loans to pay for college is a lot like using credit cards, although unlike credit card debt, these variable-rate loans typically can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.

It’s not clear whether your son committed identity theft in signing your wife up for additional debt. Some private loans include a clause permitting the origination of subsequent years’ loans in addition to the original loan, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors Network. You’d have to review the promissory note to see if that’s the case. If not and if your son forged your wife’s signature, she potentially could get released from the obligation — but most lenders will require the son to be convicted of identity theft first, Kantrowitz said.

“When given that choice,” he said, “most families choose to handle it internally rather than see the student convicted of fraud.”

The only good news here is that private student lenders have fewer powers to collect, compared with the federal government. There is a time limit on how long collectors can pursue you because private student loans are subject to each state’s statute of limitations on debt. (There is no statute of limitations on federal student loan debt, which means collectors can pursue borrowers indefinitely.) Private student lenders can file lawsuits against you, but they don’t have the power that federal student loan collectors have to withhold tax refunds and take a portion of Social Security checks.

If your only income in retirement is from Social Security and you don’t have any other property a creditor can legally take, you may be “judgment proof.” That doesn’t mean you can’t be sued, but a creditor wouldn’t be able to collect on a judgment against you. To find out whether that’s the case, talk to an experienced bankruptcy attorney familiar with the laws in your state.

None of this reduces your son’s responsibility for his debt. If collectors can’t come after you, they will start to pursue him in earnest for payment and he’ll learn just how wrong he is about student loan debt. But that’s his problem, and he at least has a working lifetime ahead of him to pay back what he borrowed.

Categories : Q&A, Student Loans
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Dear Liz: I went through divorce three years ago (after 20 years being together). I’m now 41 and broken financially and emotionally. I’m wondering if I should sell my small place and move in with my mother or stay broke and tough it out so I can keep my own place. I work part time, which was fine when I was married. Should I return to college and start a new “second half of life career”? I love my job and I’m torn.

What do you recommend? I can’t survive on my income alone and pay my bills. It’s never ending and I’m stressed beyond measure!

Answer: Recovering from a big setback such as a divorce is tough. But continuing to struggle in a situation that doesn’t work makes little sense. You need enough income to cover your bills and save for the future.

If you sell your place and move in with your mother temporarily, you could continue working part time in the job you love while getting a degree that would qualify you for a better, full-time job. You’ll need to make this investment carefully, since you’ll have only a couple of decades for the money you spend (or borrow) to pay off. A two-year degree might make more sense than a four-year course of study, for example.

You’ll want to pick a well-paying job in an industry that’s growing, and you should limit the amount of student loan you take on to no more than you expect to make your first year out of school. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a list of the fastest-growing jobs, and their median salaries, at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm. Your local community college probably also has a career services center where you could talk to counselors about your options.

Categories : Q&A, Student Loans
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Student loans can pay off with nursing degree

Mar 25, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I am about to begin graduate school to get my master’s degree in nursing to eventually become an advanced registered nurse practitioner. I have Googled scholarships, grants, fellowships, and am coming up empty-handed. I am fearfully looking at student loans to finance my degree (it would be about $34,000). I am appalled at the rates on federal student loans, and private school loans or just personal private loans are even worse. Are there any other options that I haven’t discovered? I don’t have any school debt to date, so this is all very daunting.

Answer: Let’s start with the good news: Your education should pay off. Advanced registered nurse practitioners earn a median of $86,625, according to the salary tracking site Payscale. That compares with a median of $55,311 for a registered nurse. There are no guarantees in education, any more than there are in life, but you should be able to recoup the cost of your education fairly quickly.

To find scholarships, you need to know where to look. One place to start is the Fastweb database, which tracks scholarships, grants and other financial aid programs. Fastweb lists the National Student Nurses Assn., the American Assn. of Colleges of Nursing and a variety of smaller programs, many of which are school-specific, publisher Mark Kantrowitz said. If you’re willing to serve in a high-need area, you also can check out HRSA Nurse Corps Scholarship (at http://www.hrsa.gov/loanscholarships/scholarships/nursing/). The ROTC also offers scholarships.

“Many employers of nurses provide signing bonuses or loan repayment assistance programs to help new nurses repay their student loans, since nurses remain in demand,” Kantrowitz noted.

You’re smart to be cautious about education debt, since too many people have overdosed on student loans. However, student loans in moderation can help you get ahead financially if you’re borrowing for the right education.

Since there’s strong demand in your field and excellent pay, you shouldn’t shy away from federal student loans, which offer fixed interest rates and a number of consumer protections, including forbearance and deferral in the event you become unemployed. You would be borrowing far less than you’re likely to make the first year after you graduate, so your payments shouldn’t be burdensome. If you decide to pursue a career in public health or work for a nonprofit, you could qualify for federal student loan forgiveness after 10 years.

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Are student loans a bad idea?

Mar 11, 2013 | | Comments (2)

Dear Liz: I am a junior in college, and I might have to take out a loan my senior year because of financial cuts in the state. Is it really a bad idea to take a loan for college?

Answer: No, it’s not. You don’t want to overdose on education debt, but a student loan that helps you get the right degree could be the best investment you’ll ever make.

Someone with a college degree will earn on average $2.3 million over the course of a working lifetime, which is $1 million more than the lifetime earnings of someone with just a high school diploma, according to a study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington. College graduates also are more likely to stay employed. The unemployment rate for people with college degrees is about half of that for people with only high school diplomas.

Of course, you’ll want to make sure there is sufficient demand for your degree to justify the costs of your education, since all college degrees are not created equal. PayScale, a site that tracks salary information, has a report on its site called “Majors That Pay You Back” that monitors median starting and mid-career incomes for various degrees.

You’ve probably heard horror stories about people winding up with massive amounts of expensive student debt. In many cases, these scholars used private student loans, which have variable rates and lack the protections of federal student loans.

Limit how much you borrow. In general, don’t borrow more than you expect to make your first year out of school. Also, exhaust all available federal student loans before you consider a private loan. If you can work a part-time job or increase your hours to avoid a private loan, do it — but don’t work so many hours that you can’t complete your schoolwork.

A loan that helps you complete school would be far better than dropping out now, since the economic payoff from a college education requires that you actually get your degree.

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Education savingsA few months ago I gave a verbal spanking to a woman who equated college loans with handouts. She wondered why people didn’t just delay college for a year and earn enough money to pay for their entire education, as she did back in the day.

I pointed out that there weren’t many jobs available to newly-minted high school graduates that paid $60,000, which is about the minimum you’d need to pay for a four-year degree today.

Apparently my reader isn’t the only one having trouble keeping up with the times. A recent New York Times story quoted Virginia Foxx, a Congresswoman from North Carolina who heads a House subcommittee on higher education and work force training, saying she was bewildered why people went into debt instead of working their way through school the way she did.

Here’s what Times writer Ron Lieber pointed out:

But students nowadays who try to work their way through college without parental support or loans face a financial challenge of a different order than the one that Ms. Foxx, 69, confronted as a University of North Carolina undergraduate more than 40 years ago. Today, a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State, the largest university in her district, can easily cost $80,000 for a state resident, including tuition, room, board and other costs. Back in her day, the total was about $550 a year. Even with inflation, that would translate to just over $4,000 for each year it takes to earn a degree.

A plucky, lucky few manage to get through college with no loans or parental support. But many of those who try wind up dropping out, unable to balance the work hours required with the demands of school.

If you’re one of those who may be stuck trying to pay your own way, Zac Bissonnette’s book “Debt Free U” can provide helpful guidance. If you’re a parent or a policymaker, however, you should check your views about the viability of kids’ working their way through college with today’s realities.

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