When you miss a payment on most debts, your account will be in default at that time or shortly afterward. For instance, when you fall behind on a credit card payment or mortgage loan, the lender is usually very quick to let you know that your loan is in default. But default doesn’t happen right away when it comes to federal student loans. You default on most federal student loans only after a series of missed payments.
While you won’t go into default immediately, defaulting on your federal student loans has serious consequences. The government has powerful tools to use against borrowers who don't make student loan payments.
When a borrower of a Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) or Direct Loan misses a payment, the loan becomes delinquent. The servicer might contact you and tell you about different repayment options. While the new servicer might sound a lot like a debt collector, it usually isn’t one. A debt collector will come into the picture later (see below) if you don’t get caught up.
If your FFEL or Direct Loan payments are due monthly, default will occur after 270 days (about nine months) of missed payments. If your payments are due less frequently than monthly, default occurs after 330 days of missed payments (about 11 months). However, a Perkins loan is in default as soon as you miss a payment or violate any other term of the payment agreement.
While federal student loans are generally more lenient than most other loans regarding when default happens, the repercussions of defaulting on federal student loans are much more severe than for most other debts.
If you're in default, the U.S. Department of Education can ask the IRS to intercept (take) your tax refund and apply the money to your debt. This process is sometimes called a “tax refund offset.” The government can also take federal benefits that are usually exempt from collection, like Social Security, to repay a defaulted federal student loan.
Tax refund offsets. The IRS can intercept any income tax refund you may be entitled to until your student loans are paid in full. In some cases, you can challenge a tax refund offset, though you might need the assistance of an attorney.
Social Security intercepts. The government can take some federal benefit payments—including Social Security retirement benefits and Social Security disability benefits, but not Supplemental Security Income—as reimbursement for student loans. The government can't take any amount that would leave you with benefits less than $9,000 per year or $750 per month. And, it can’t take more than 15% of your total benefit. (Learn more in Defaulting on Your Student Loans: Tax Refund and Social Security Intercepts.)
The government can take ("garnish") a limited portion of the wages of a student-loan debtor who’s in default. It can take up to 15% of your disposable income without taking you to court. But it can’t take more than the equivalent of 30 times the current federal minimum wage. As with the tax refund offset, you can object to wage garnishment.
If you default on a federal student loan, the Department of Education may transfer your account to a debt collector. Debt collectors are paid fees and commissions that come out of the payments you send to the collector. So, after you make a payment, the payment goes towards paying the amount of the commission for the private collection agency and the rest goes towards paying interest and principal on your loan. If your payment doesn't cover the fee and full interest accruing on the loan, your loan balance can rise quickly.
The government might sue you. Unlike other debts, the law doesn't provide a time limit (a statute of limitations) for a lawsuit to collect federal student loans.
If you’re merely delinquent, you’re still eligible for deferment and different types of repayment plans. But you’ll lose this eligibility once the loan goes into default.
A delinquent loan is eligible for forbearance, and federal law says that a servicer has discretionary power to allow forbearance on a defaulted loan. (34 C.F.R. § 682.211(a)(1), 34 C.F.R. § 685.205(a)(8)). Unfortunately, the Department of Education doesn’t agree with this interpretation and says forbearance isn't available after default.
If you default on your federal student loans, you could lose your professional or another type of license. Approximately 20 states allow the government to suspend a state-issued professional license, like a nursing, teaching, or law license, or another kind of license, like a driver’s or even a fishing license, after a borrower goes into default.
For federal student loans, the servicer usually won’t report your loan as late to the credit reporting agencies until the payment is more than 90 days late. (If you have private student loans, though, the servicer will probably report it as late after 30 days.) This reporting will lower your credit score.
A default normally remains on your credit report for seven years. But if you rehabilitate your loans, the credit reporting agencies will remove any mention of the default from your file. Your late payment history before you entered default status, however, will stay on the report.
If you’ve missed a few payments on a federal student loan, don’t panic. You probably have time to avoid going into default. You can request a number of deferments, you might have forbearance options, or you might be able to consolidate your defaulted student loans. And, in limited circumstances, federal student loan borrowers can qualify for loan forgiveness.
Contact your loan servicer—or a consumer protection attorney who deals with student loans—to find out more about what options are available in your situation.