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HomeTrading NewsI have $80K in student loan debt from two degrees that I can’t even use. How can I repay these loans?

I have $80K in student loan debt from two degrees that I can’t even use. How can I repay these loans?

Question: “I have over $80,000 in loan debt from getting my bachelor’s and master’s. Now I am disabled and unable to use my degrees. My current loans are on hold, but I currently don’t have an income due to unemployment. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Want help dealing with student loan or other debt? Email chill@marketwatch.com.

Answer: Student loans ideally help lead to work which, in turn, adds up to income to pay back the advance. A disability because of illness or an accident making it impossible to work upends the equation. Here’s what pros say you, and people in a similar situation to you, may want to consider to help alleviate the burden of student loan debt, from loan forgiveness to a change in your repayment structure.

Fiscal gurus agree that in your case, there are two main variables in play: What’s your loan type  (federal or private) and how severe is your disability (permanent or temporary). “Being unable to use your degrees and being unable to ever work again are two different issues,” says financial and debt resolution attorney Leslie Tayne, founder and managing director of Tayne Law Group. Either way, take action.  With student loan repayment resuming in May 2022, there’s some urgency afoot. “You cannot wait for the government to act,” she says, “and hope that you’re going to be part of a group where they discharge loans.”

If you’re unable to work long-term, you may qualify for federal student loan forgiveness through total and permanent disability discharge (TPD). This program relieves you from having to repay a Federal Direct Loan, a Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program loan, and/or a Federal Perkins Loan or to complete a TEACH Grant service obligation. There is some complexity to the TPD discharge, including methods of applying and qualifying for it, according to financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, author of several books including “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.”Eligibility requires proof that you’re totally and permanently disabled, and it can come through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Social Security Administration (SSA) or a doctor’s certification. Eligibility requirements include that the disability has lasted five years or will last five years or will eventually lead to death.

But a heads up: Discharge approval isn’t the end of the story. “There is the possibility of a three-year post-discharge monitoring period during which earned income must be less than 100% of the poverty line for a family of two,” says Kantrowitz.

Some good news: The Biden administration “has made it easier for older borrowers with disabilities,” says Andrew Pentis, loans expert and certified student loan counselor at StudentLoanHero. In August, more than 323,000 student loan borrowers with a total and permanent disability had their debt canceled, adding up to $5.8 million of relief. The change applied to borrowers identified through their SSA data match. 

If you don’t meet the requirements to be eligible to TPD, consider enrolling inan income-driven repayment plan that allows you to set your monthly federal student loan payment to an amount that you can afford based on your earned income. That would keep your monthly payments at $0 as long as you have no income. “This would give you a sort of a temporary respite to make sure that your loans stay current,” says Pentis. “You avoid delinquency and all the negative effects of that.” StudentAid.gov offers in-depth looks at loan forgiveness and discharge programs. 

But what if you’re aprivate student loan borrower? Go to the source of your loan — bank, credit union, private lender — to inquire about disability debt forgiveness. “It really is a lender by lender case,” says Pentis. “Each lender has it own application process and policy.” In any case, you’ll need to show proof of your disability. 

Resorting to a Plan B, as in bankruptcy, may be a long shot avenue to explore. “The bankruptcy court looks at certain factors to determine whether the repayment of the student loans is causing undue hardship, thereby justifying the discharge of some or all of the student loan,” says Tayne. Circumstances are challenging to prove. “The odds are long and slim,” says Tayne, “but that may be a possible option.”

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