Q&A: How student loans can follow you to the grave

Dear Liz: Several years ago, my daughter called in tears asking if I could help because my granddaughter, who was halfway through her first year of college, would have to drop out if she didn’t immediately finish paying her tuition. I agreed to co-sign a loan, thinking after she got through that semester, they could see how things went.

Well, unbeknownst to me, she took out a loan that also covered the next semester. She dropped out of school in her second year. Now several years later, I’m being hounded by the lender because neither my granddaughter or daughter seem to think they should have to do anything about this. I sometimes get up to four calls a day, seven days a week. I have returned calls but gotten nowhere.

Meanwhile, my granddaughter recently got a brand-new car and posts pictures of herself enjoying partying with friends. I tried to get her to talk to me about it, thinking if she, along with her mom and myself, could each manage to pay a little each month we could work on getting this taken care of, but I got no response from either of them.

My daughter and son-in-law still go on cruises and do other traveling, drive newer expensive vehicles and will no longer talk to me.

I am 73 and struggling to live month-to-month on Social Security, which is my only income. I used to have an 800 credit score that has now gone down into the 600s because of this.

Now I am afraid they will start taking this out of my Social Security check. This loan is about 72% of my total annual income! My doctor has upped one of my medications as I have trouble sleeping worrying about this.

What am I to do? The only way I can see out of this would be my death, and then I’m afraid it would even follow me to my grave.

Answer: If you co-signed the loan, then it was likely made by a private lender that won’t be able to take your Social Security check. Federal student loans are a different story. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that up to 15% of borrowers’ Social Security benefits can be taken to repay those.

Federal student loans also have no statute of limitations, which means the government can indeed pursue you to the grave. Private student loans, however, do limit how long lenders have to sue you over the debt. The time limit varies by state and is typically three to 10 years, but the limit may be extended in some areas if you make a payment on the debt or even acknowledge that it’s yours.

You should make an appointment to talk to a bankruptcy attorney. Student loans typically can’t be erased in bankruptcy, but an attorney familiar with the credit laws in your state can advise you about how vulnerable you might be to lawsuits and other collection actions.

If Social Security is your only income and you don’t have other assets a creditor can take, you may be “judgment proof.” That means a lender can sue you, but won’t be able to collect anything.

If that’s the case, the attorney may be able to communicate the situation to the lender so that it can redirect its energies to collecting from your irresponsible granddaughter.

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Comments

  1. Jan Strand says:

    Dear Liz,
    You gave that grandmother excellent advice on co-signing a student loan with her deadbeat granddaugher, but I would add the following to stop the harassing calls from the debt collector:

    Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (part of the FTC), found at 1692 sec. 805 (c) states in part: “Ceasing Communication. If the consumer notifies the debt collector in writing that the consumer refuses to pay the debt or the consumer wishes the debt collector to cease any further communication with the consumer, the debt collector shall not communicate with the consumer with respect to such debt….” There are 3 exceptions, but this letter normally works to stop the calls or letters, but it doesn’t make the debt go away. Either the grandmother or her attorney can write such a letter. Violations can result in fines of up to $1000 per violation if the consumer sues the debt collector.

    • Liz Weston says:

      She has that right, but I wouldn’t advise her to send out such a letter until she consults with the attorney. Those letters can provoke a collector to file a lawsuit.