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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.

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