Q&A: Co-signing for a student loan backfires

Dear Liz: My wife and I both had excellent credit scores. Now mine are in the dump. I co-signed for a friend’s daughter’s school loan 10 years ago. I know now this was a bad mistake. I guaranteed $25,000. Now two things have happened: The daughter quit paying the loan and the friendship took a bad turn.

This is seriously hurting my credit. We have already been told when trying to refinance our mortgage that we’ll need to fix the school loan, which is showing more than 90 days behind. The outstanding balance is $20,000. I can pay the loan off. Making payments just adds interest to the problem. Are there any other options to repair my credit that don’t rely on the daughter’s ability to keep the loan current?

Answer: If you can pay the loan off, then do. You are legally responsible for this debt, and the longer it goes unpaid the worse the damage to your credit scores.

If this were a federal student loan, you would have the option of rehabilitation, which can erase some of the negative marks on your credit reports after you make a series of on-time payments. Because it’s a private loan — I know this because federal student loans don’t have co-signers — you probably don’t have a rehabilitation option (although it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask).

Once the loan is paid off, you can proceed with the refinancing but you probably will find that lenders want to base the loan on your battered scores, rather than your wife’s better ones. That means you might not qualify, or you might have to pay a much higher rate. If she can qualify for the refinance on her own, that’s one option. Otherwise, you might have to wait for your credit to heal before you refinance.

Q&A: Student loan co-signer repercussions

Dear Liz: I co-signed a student loan for my son. He was unemployed for a year and has now returned to work. The lender is not being cooperative with accepting a lesser monthly payment or any payment until he gives them a lump sum he does not have. They have been calling me about this debt. I am retired, 74, with a pension and Social Security as my sole income. I have no assets. What can they do to me?

Answer: If this were a federal loan, the government could take a chunk of your Social Security check and withhold your tax refunds. But your son also would have far more options for getting caught up, including a pathway out of default and income-based repayment plans.

Because it’s a private loan, evidenced by the fact it required a co-signer, the lender has fewer powers to collect, but you and your son also have fewer consumer protections. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently released a report detailing people’s complaints about private lenders’ unwillingness to offer affordable payment options or modifications for unmanageable student loans.

That doesn’t mean your son should quit trying. The CFPB has a sample letter on its site that he can use to request a repayment plan he can afford. If he’s still having problems, he can make a complaint to the CFPB.

When you co-signed, you promised to pay if he couldn’t. Private collectors typically can’t take your retirement income, however. You may want to make an appointment with a bankruptcy attorney who can assess your situation. (Student loans, federal or private, typically can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, but the attorney will know the rules for creditors and borrowers in your state.) You and your son also should review the information about negotiating with private student lenders that you’ll find on the Student Loan Borrower Assistance site run by the National Consumer Law Center.

Son signed them up for overwhelming student loan debt

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.