Photo: Marc Royce
Q: In 2001 my soon-to-be ex-husband and I combined our student loans under a federal program allowing consolidation of educational debt. The program was abandoned after the government realized an undue burden could be placed on one person—in this case, me. My $26,000 individual loan is now a $135,000 debt ($52,000 is his principal). My husband took off and has no interest in paying his portion of the loan, which is now in default. With interest and penalties, the figure keeps on growing. I've asked for counsel from lawyers and have been told to either marry a rich man or quit my job because it could take the lender years to find me. I'm a single parent working very hard to get by. Where do I turn?
A: How sad that marrying rich is being held out as a solution, as if the only way a woman can take care of herself is to find a wealthy man to do the job. It seems your ex did quite a job on you, but please know that you're not alone; I've seen so many women let misguided love wreck their finances. As I explain in Mine, Yours, and Ours, exchanging vows doesn't mean you have to exchange debts. I believe what you owe prior to marriage should stay separate.
Unfortunately, as you've discovered, the law on consolidated student loans is rather unforgiving. The fact that you combined yours means that, legally, you're both responsible for the total amount. As huge a worry as this is, I find it absurd that a lawyer would suggest that you remain in default. You don't solve one problem by creating another. Nor is bankruptcy a likely fix; student loans are not easily erased that way.
For more advice, I turned to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. He suggests calling the Default Resolution Group at the U.S. Department of Education (800-621-3115) to discuss a payment plan that will get your loans out of default status. Ask if you can qualify for the Income Contingent Repayment (ICR) plan. As its name implies, your monthly installment is based on your current income (and family size). If you're still paying off the loan after 25 years, the remaining balance is forgiven. You should also scour all the loan documents carefully for any overcharges. For example, late fees cannot exceed 6 percent of your payment. And push to see if by making a good faith effort to polish off the loan, you can get a little help in return: Maybe the lender is willing to reduce some of those fees.
I realize it's easy to look at your daunting total and feel defeated. But each payment you make is a personal declaration that you're a tough, capable woman who is doing her best to look out for herself. That makes you a scholar in my book.
From the August 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine