Q&A: Should grandma sue over the student loan she co-signed?

Dear Liz: You recently answered a letter from a grandmother who co-signed a student loan for a granddaughter who isn’t paying the debt. Although you did not suggest it, a very viable option would be for the grandmother to contact an attorney and sue her daughter and her granddaughter for the debt owed.

It doesn’t appear that they care for the grandmother anyway, so why feel bad about holding their feet to the fire? The grandmother may not have a legal leg to stand on with the daughter, but surely the granddaughter received the benefit of the loan and should ante up.

Answer: Suing a family member is a pretty drastic step that many people are reluctant to consider. If the grandmother is in fact “judgment proof” — if creditors who sue her wouldn’t be allowed to garnish her income or seize her property — then the lender might start focusing its collection actions on the granddaughter. The grandmother wouldn’t have to go to the expense of suing the young woman or trying to collect on a judgment.

Either way, the bankruptcy attorney I suggested she consult to help determine if she’s judgment proof also would be able to advise her about filing such a lawsuit.

To reiterate, student loans typically can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, but bankruptcy attorneys understand the credit laws of their states and can help people assess how vulnerable they are to lawsuits and other collection actions.

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.

Q&A: Tax implications of parents paying off a child’s loans?

Dear Liz: My wife and I co-signed for student loans for our daughter. My daughter made payments on these loans since she graduated from college four years ago. My wife and I just paid off the loan balance, which was $22,000. Is our payment considered a gift to our daughter?

Answer: Yes, but your gift is within the annual exemption limit, so you won’t have to file a gift tax return. You and your wife can each give your daughter $14,000, or a total $28,000, without having to file a return. Gift taxes aren’t owed until the amounts someone gives away above those annual limits exceeds $5.49 million.

Q&A: What to consider before giving money for law or medical school

Dear Liz: Our daughter is in medical school using scholarships and student loans. We are now in a position to help her out, but worry that financial help might work against her sources of aid. Would it be better to pay some on her outstanding loans, give her money, pay some of her living expenses or put the money into a savings account to give her when she graduates to use towards paying down her debt? The amount we could give her would not be enough to pay for everything each semester, just something to ease her burden. We don’t want to jeopardize her ability to receive aid.

Answer: While nearly all graduate students qualify as independent — which means that parent financial information isn’t required to get aid — some medical and law schools do consider parental assets and income in their calculations.

Your daughter should call her school’s financial aid office anonymously to ask about its policy regarding parental aid, said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a college financing expert at TheCollegeSolution.com. If your help would hurt, you can use the savings account route but you needn’t wait until she graduates to give her the money. Once she files financial aid forms for her last year, she should be able to accept your largesse without consequence.

Q&A: Watch out for shady companies promising to help you repay student loans

Dear Liz: I’m 32 and have a little over $100,000 in student debt from undergraduate and graduate school. I’m trying to get my professional life on track, and I can’t figure out how to pay the loans off. Everything I see online seems shady. What are the questions I need to be asking myself? What are the things I should be searching for on the Internet to help me get control of my financial situation?

Answer: “Shady” is exactly the right word to describe many of the companies promising student loan debt relief. They’re making false promises and charging troubled borrowers fat fees for government help that’s available for free. Many of these outfits get disciplined in one state, only to pop up in another.

If you’re struggling to pay federal student loans, you have several options for making the payments more manageable. You can research income-based repayment programs at StudentLoans.gov. Private student loans don’t have the same consumer protections or numerous repayment options, but you can contact your lenders directly to see what they offer.

The amount of debt you have is large but not insurmountable, especially if it qualified you for a well-paying job.

You don’t have to rush to pay off the federal student loans because those offer low, fixed rates, but you may want to prioritize paying off variable-rate private loans.

Also, don’t let your concern about your debt prevent you from saving for retirement. That, too, will be expensive, and the longer you wait to contribute to a retirement fund, the harder it will be to catch up.

Q&A: When student debt payoff becomes complicated by identity theft

Dear Liz: I went back to school in 2002 to get my teaching credential. I took out several student loans and set up a repayment plan upon graduating with automatic deduction out of my checking account. Several years ago, the IRS started garnishing my bank account stating that there was a lien but I never received any other type of indication what was going on.

After contacting the IRS, we found that someone took out a fraudulent student loan using my former married name. I also got my credit reports, which showed the loan. I was able to get the signed loan documents from the U.S. Department of Education but now the department does not respond to my certified letters or phone calls.

I’m at a loss at what to do at this point. I filed a police report and notified the credit reporting agencies. I’m out almost $10,000. Is there any other advice you could give me?

Answer: First, follow up with the credit bureaus to make sure the fraudulent loan has been removed from your credit reports. Consider setting up credit freezes at all three bureaus to reduce the chances of being victimized again. The Identity Theft Resource Center at www.idtheftcenter.org has more information to help you protect yourself.

Getting the actual loan dismissed and your money back is a more difficult task. You may be able to have the loan erased under what’s known as a false certification discharge, but qualifying for that isn’t easy, said Jay Fleischman, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in student loan problems.

It’s not enough to have a police report. You’d need to identify and file a lawsuit against the thief. If you can get a court judgment against that person, you would provide the Education Department with that as well as proof of your identity and possibly signature samples from the approximate date of the loan.

Even if you did everything necessary to prove eligibility for discharge, the department could still deny it if you received any benefits from the loan — if it paid any costs of your education instead of someone else’s, Fleishman said.

At this point, you may need to hire an attorney familiar with identity theft issues. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates at www.naca.net.

Q&A: When a student loan co-signer dies

Dear Liz: I have a friend who recently died after co-signing a student loan for her son. She was making the payments. Does that loan go to her son now to repay?

Answer: Possibly. Another possibility is that her estate is on the hook.

It all depends on the loan agreement, which varies from private lender to private lender. (We know this is a private loan because federal student loans, which have many more consumer protections, do not require co-signers.)

In many cases, nothing happens if the other borrower takes over the payments and continues to make them on time. Some lenders, however, have a contract clause that makes the balance of the loan due immediately. In the past, lenders also could consider a death to be an “automatic default” that could seriously damage the living borrower’s credit. Fortunately, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pushed lenders to change their policies on new and existing loans so that co-signer deaths no longer trigger such defaults.

If you’re close to this young man, you should urge him to check the contract and to contact the lender.

Q&A: Deploying a windfall wisely

Dear Liz: I recently received a $38,000 windfall. I have a student loan balance of $37,000. I want to buy a home, but I can’t decide if I should have a large down payment and continue paying down student loans slowly, or make a balloon payment on my student loans and put down a smaller amount on the home. The mortgage rate would be around 4% while the student loans are at 6.55%. The price of homes in my area is at least $250,000 for a two-bedroom house (which my income supports). I want to make a smart decision.

Answer: At first glance, the answer may seem obvious: Pay down the higher-rate debt. But a deeper look reveals that the second option may be the better course.

Student loan interest is deductible, so your effective interest rate on those loans may be less than 5%. If they’re federal student loans, they have all kinds of consumer protections as well. If you lose your job, for example, you have access to deferral and forbearance as well as income-sensitive repayment plans. In most cases, you don’t need to be in a rush to pay off this tax-advantaged, relatively low-rate debt.

A home purchase may be more time sensitive. Interest rates are already up from their recent lows and may go higher. If you can afford to buy a home and plan to stay put for several years, then you probably shouldn’t delay.

A 10% down payment should be sufficient to get a good loan. You’ll have to pay private mortgage insurance, since you can’t put 20% down, but PMI typically drops off after you’ve built enough equity. You usually can request that PMI be dropped once you’ve paid the mortgage down to 80% of the home’s original value. At 78%, the lender may be required to remove PMI. (Note that these rules apply to conventional mortgages and don’t apply to the mortgage insurance that comes with FHA loans.)

You can use the remaining cash to pay down your student loans, but do so only if you already have a healthy emergency fund. It’s smart to set aside at least 1% of the value of your home each year to cover repairs and maintenance, plus you’ll want at least three months’ worth of mortgage payments in the bank. Even better would be enough cash to cover all your expenses for three months.

Q&A:Prenup may help with student loan issue

Dear Liz: You recently heard from someone who discovered after marriage that his wife had more than $100,000 in student loans. Would having a prenuptial agreement help in this situation?

Answer: Possibly. Debts incurred before marriage are considered separate rather than joint debts, but creditors still sometimes try to go after joint assets to get paid. A prenuptial agreement, which is a written contract created before marriage, could help a couple limit liability for each other’s debts.

In this case, the husband was willing to help his wife resolve the debts, but knowing about them before marriage would have been helpful — to put it mildly. The loans probably would have turned up during the financial disclosures required when drafting a prenuptial agreement. Even couples who won’t consider a prenup should pull their credit reports together so each knows what he or she is getting into.

Q&A: When a new spouse brings surprise debt to the marriage

Dear Liz: I’m 58 and got married for the first time almost two years ago. I discovered my wife has several incredibly large outstanding student loans, including a parent Plus loan for her son’s education that she thought was in deferment and that has nearly doubled to well over $100,000. In addition, my wife has her own student loans, which total over $40,000 and have rates from 3% to nearly 7%. Needless to say, I was shocked and dismayed to discover this debt and wish she had shared it with me earlier.

We have looked into consolidating the loans into the U.S. Department of Education’s student debt relief program, which creates a monthly payment program based on income and forgives the remaining balance after 25 years. I’m uncomfortable with this plan. The long duration of monthly payments would be a big struggle and, after 25 years, we would have paid nearly $40,000 over the current principal even with the outstanding balance being forgiven.

I’m contemplating liquidating all my non-retirement accounts and half of our savings to pay off the larger parent PLUS loan.This would leave us with very little liquid reserve but still some substantial retirement accounts. Our combined income is around $75,000. We would then consolidate my wife’s lower-rate debt and try to take a personal loan out to pay off the higher rate loans if we can secure a lower rate. Do you have any other suggestions as to my options?

Answer: Your situation is a perfect example of why couples should review each other’s credit reports before marriage. At the very least, you could have figured out a plan to deal with the debt at least two years earlier and saved the interest that’s accrued since then.

As you probably know, your wife is stuck with this debt. The government can pursue her to her grave because there’s no statute of limitations on federal student loan debt collections. The government also can take part of her Social Security retirement or disability checks, something collectors of other kinds of debt can’t do. Even bankruptcy isn’t a viable option for most borrowers because student loan debt is extremely hard to get erased.

It’s understandable that you don’t want to be making student loan payments into your 80s, but paying the loans off much faster probably isn’t a reasonable option, given your income. So liquidating other assets to pay off the parent loan may be the best option. The wisdom of this approach, however, depends on how well you’ve saved for retirement, your job security and how much of an emergency fund would remain. If you lost your job after paying off the parent loan, you couldn’t get that money back to pay your expenses. By contrast, you could have your payment lowered under the Department of Education’s plan if you lost a source of income.

Consolidating your wife’s debt inside the federal student loan program would allow her to retain some important consumer protections that aren’t available with other debt, such as the ability to defer payments for up to three years if she faces an economic setback. If you do refinance your wife’s debt with private lenders to lower the rate, consider doing so with a private student loan rather than a personal loan if you want to retain the ability to write off the interest.

This is a complex decision with a lot of moving parts, so you’d be smart to discuss your plan with a fee-only financial planner before deciding what to do.