Until Debt Do Us Part: When Shared Bills Outlast The Relationship
As a result, after DeBlieck lost her home to foreclosure, declared bankruptcy, and worked as a waitress to support her three children, the loan officer seized her paycheck and put a lien on his tax return to pay off the overdue loan.
DeBlieck said that although her ex-husband was ordered in a divorce decree to pay the balance, it did not nullify the contract she signed by promising to repay the loan, which made her ultimately responsible.
“I was basically told there was nothing I could do; I have to suck it off, ”DeBlieck said. “He’s just skating away from $ 30,000 in debt.”
DeBlieck is one of an unknown number of borrowers caught in a similar situation. Although the federal government stopped allowing joint consolidation loans 10 years ago, this policy change provided no remedy for people who had already consolidated their loans between 1993 and 2005, like DeBlieck.
Compared to the student loan crisis as a whole, the problem is small in scope and largely ignored in the larger college debt debate. But for those who stick with their ex-spouse’s debt for years to come, the situation can seem dire, say borrowers and student loan specialists.
Boston attorney Adam S. Minsky, who specializes in student loans, said he gets several calls a year from people seeking help with a joint consolidation loan, but told them he didn’t there wasn’t much to do.
“It affects a subset of people, but for them it’s a huge problem,” Minsky said.
The Education Department says federal law does not allow the splitting of old loans, even in cases of domestic violence. Joint borrowers also cannot apply for income-based repayment plans unless both parties submit financial information, often an insurmountable hurdle for divorced couples.
A spokesperson for the department said an estimate of the number of joint consolidation loans that remain in repayment was not readily available, but specialists placed the number in the thousands.
Bill Consolidation site consolidationnow announced that even when divorced couples agree on a repayment plan, some people find themselves forced to shoulder all of the debt.
Angela Lett, 41, of Jamaica Plain, said her ex-husband was very upset when their loan officer, Navient, told them they couldn’t split their student loan after their divorce six years ago. He felt “struggling with my loans,” she recalls.
Lett, who has two bachelor’s and master’s degrees and works for a nonprofit, said most of the student loan debt was his, and they agreed to deposit monthly payments into a shared account. .
Even though his share was only $ 50 a month, he didn’t pay, Lett said. She spent three years after their separation chasing him down for her part, but ultimately decided that “it wasn’t worth the headache anymore.”
She paid off all of the debt herself and joked that this year she went into “ninja payment mode,” living sparingly while increasing the loan from $ 70,000 to $ 47,000.
“It would definitely be one less stress in my life if I could have separated my loans from my ex-husband as part of the divorce decree,” Lett said.
Federal legislation to address the problem has been proposed and petitions
posted on Change.org urged Congress to act. But the problem persists, in part because it only affects a small constituency, experts said.
“It’s easy for lawmakers to see it as unimportant because it doesn’t affect a lot of people,” said Heather Jarvis, a North Carolina lawyer specializing in student loan law. The problem could be easily fixed, she said, with an amendment to sever or reconsolidate loans.
“I’ve never seen anyone explain why someone should keep the bag,” Jarvis said.
Joshua Cohen, a New England lawyer specializing in student loans, said he represented a woman who has been a victim of domestic violence but who cannot apply for an income-based repayment plan because she cannot obtain financial information from his abusive former. husband.
“We don’t want to deal with him,” Cohen said. His situation underscores the need to allow divorced borrowers to apply for repayment plans on their own if they can demonstrate that their former spouse could not be reached or refused to provide information, he said.
In an advisory on servicing loans and collections, the US Department of Education said earlier this year that the law does not allow the splitting of joint consolidation loans, even in domestic violence situations. But borrowers facing “unique circumstances, such as domestic violence” are encouraged to contact the Federal Student Aid Ombudsman to explore options to “alleviate the problems.”
Education officials have made a few exceptions. When a spouse dies or becomes disabled, the portion that the person was originally owed may be released from the loan balance. But the biggest problem remains.
“Divorce is much more complicated than death,” said Betsy Mayotte, director of consumer awareness and compliance at American Student Assistance, a Boston-based nonprofit group. “The problem with spousal consolidation loans is that when they get ugly, they’re the ugliest.”
Mayotte speculated that Congress might be reluctant to change the law because the separation of joint loans would be complicated, requiring calculations such as the amount each spouse paid for the loans during the marriage.
DeBlieck said she never considered a downside to a joint consolidation loan, or what might happen if she divorces.
“We were going to be together forever,” she said.
DeBlieck eventually made enough monthly payments to get her loan out of default, and after her ex-husband provided her with financial information, she was put on an income-based plan that didn’t require her to make any payments. payments over the past two years. But as the interest accumulates, she fears that she will never be able to pay it back.
“I think it’s unfair that after a divorce he can ruin me completely, financially and there’s nothing I can do about it,” DeBlieck said.
Shelley Murphy can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.