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Enormous student loans paint parents into a corner

A couple who took on overwhelming debt for their children's educations might be making payments for the rest of their lives. But there are ways to ease the monthly burden.

October 28, 2012|Liz Weston | Money Talk

Dear Liz: My husband and I took out more than $200,000 in federal parent PLUS loans to pay for our two daughters' college educations. My husband earned over $300,000 when the loans were made. Since then, he lost his job and now makes $100,000. I went back to work and earn $35,000. We finally succeeded in getting a more affordable mortgage, but we are taking about $3,000 out of our savings each month to pay the bills.

My husband handles the finances and says that even if we could lower our loan payments, it wouldn't matter because we still have to pay forever. He can't even think about retiring. We do have a financial advisor, but I'm very concerned and wonder whether we should be using our savings this way. What are our options?

(P.S. Our girls both graduated, although one doesn't have a great job and the other is still looking for work.)

Answer: Parent PLUS loans can, in moderation, help families pay for their children's college educations. The key phrase there is "in moderation." Even at your former income level, taking on so much debt for your children's educations was ill-advised.

You don't have a lot of options, unfortunately. As you probably know, this debt typically can't be erased in Bankruptcy Court. If you stop paying, the government can take your federal and state tax refunds, garnish up to 15% of any Social Security benefit payments and ruin your credit, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb financial aid sites.

"The government can also sue defaulted borrowers to recover the debt if they believe the borrower has sufficient funds to repay," Kantrowitz said.

Ideally, you wouldn't have borrowed more than you could have paid off before retirement (while still being able to contribute to your retirement savings). Since that's not the case, your best strategy may be to simply get the payments as low as you can and resign yourself to paying this bill, perhaps until you die. (PLUS loans are canceled when the borrower dies and are not charged against the borrower's estate, Kantrowitz said.)

As you suspect, it's not a good idea to dip into savings to pay your monthly bills, especially when you're doing so in the vague hope that things will get better rather than in the face of concrete evidence that they will.

There are several ways of stretching out the term of the loan to reduce your payments. One is using all available deferments and forbearances to suspend repayment for a few years. Then you could use an extended repayment plan to stretch out the loan term to 30 years.

Normally you wouldn't want to take deferments and forbearances because interest continues to accrue, digging you into a deeper hole, Kantrowitz said. "But if the goal is to reduce the burden of the monthly payments and not ever fully repay the debt, it can be a workable strategy," he said.

Another possible option for some families is an income-contingent repayment plan. Parent PLUS loans aren't eligible for the more favorable income-based repayment plan, but income-contingent plans could lower your payments to 20% of your discretionary income, with the balance of the loans forgiven after 25 years of repayment. Discretionary income in this case is the amount of your income over the poverty line.

To qualify, you'd need to consolidate your Parental PLUS loans into a Direct Loan consolidation loan. You can find out more at http://www.loanconsolidation.ed.gov. Given your current income, though, you may be better off with the extended repayment plan.

Clarifying a Social Security strategy

Dear Liz: I'm confused by your answer about the "file and suspend" strategy for boosting Social Security benefits. You wrote that the higher-earning, younger spouse in this case had to wait until her full retirement age if she wanted to use this strategy to let her husband claim a spousal benefit while her own benefit continued to grow.

I was told by a financial planner and thought I had confirmed on the Social Security website that once I am 62 and my spouse is 66 (his full retirement age), I can file for and suspend my benefits, allowing him to claim my spousal benefit.

Answer: You're confusing two different strategies. If your husband waits until his full retirement age to apply for benefits, he has the option of receiving a spousal benefit and allowing his own benefit to continue growing. But he can receive the spousal benefit only if you've applied to receive your own benefits.

If you're younger than your full retirement age, you don't have the option to "file and suspend" — in other words, to apply for your benefit and then suspend your claim so your husband can get benefits while yours continue to grow.

"The strategy of filing for retirement and suspending the retirement benefits to allow your spouse to collect is only available after full retirement age," Social Security Administration spokesman Lowell Kepke said.

Questions may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604 or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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