The number of older Americans with student loan debt – either theirs or someone else’s -- is growing. Sadly, learning how to deal with this debt is now a fact of life for many seniors heading into retirement.
According to a study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the number of older borrowers increased by at least 20 percent between 2012 and 2017. Some of these borrowers were borrowing for themselves, but the majority was borrowing for others. The study found that 73 percent of student loan borrowers age 60 and older borrowed for a child’s or grandchild’s education.
Before you co-sign a student loan for a child or grandchild, you need to understand your obligations. The co-signer not only vouches for the loan recipient's ability to pay back the loan, but is also personally responsible for repaying the loan if the recipient cannot pay. Because of this, you need to carefully consider the risk before taking on this responsibility. In some circumstances, it is possible to obtain a co-signer release from a loan after the loan recipient has made a few on-time payments. If you are a co-signer on a loan that has not defaulted, check with the lender about getting a release. You can also ask the lender for payment information to make sure the borrower is keeping up with the payments.
If the borrower defaulted and you are obliged to pay the loan back or you are the borrower yourself, you will need to manage your finances. Having to pay back student loan debt can lead to working longer, fewer retirement savings, delayed health care, and credit issues, among other things. If you are struggling to make payments, you can request a new repayment plan that has lower monthly payments. With a federal student loan, you have the option to make payments based on your income. To request an "income-driven repayment plan," go to: https://studentloans.gov/myDirectLoan/index.action.
Defaulting on a student loan may affect your Social Security benefits. If you have a private student loan, a debt collector cannot garnish your Social Security benefits to pay back the loan. In the case of federal student loans, the government can take 15 percent of your Social Security check as long as the remaining balance doesn't drop below $750. There is no statute of limitations on student loan debt, so it doesn't matter how long ago the debt occurred. If you do default on a federal loan, contact the U.S. Department of Education right away to see if you can arrange a new repayment plan.
If you die still owing debt on a federal student loan, the debt will be discharged and your spouse or other heirs will not have to repay the loan. If you have a private student loan, whether your spouse or estate will be liable to pay back the debt will depend on the individual loan. You should check with your lender to find out the discharge policies. Depending on the loan, the lender may try to collect from the estate or any co-signers. In a community property state (where all assets acquired during a marriage are considered owned by both spouses equally), the spouse may be liable for the debt (some community property states have exceptions for student loan debt).
For tips from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to help navigate problems with student loans, click here.