Generally, defaulting on your federal student loans can lead to severe consequences, like tax refund offsets and federal benefits intercepts (sometimes called “Treasury offsets”), wage garnishment, and the loss of eligibility for deferment, repayment plans, and probably forbearance. You might also find continuing your education or returning to school difficult because the Department of Education can deny you eligibility for new education grants or loans.
But during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, you’ll get a reprieve from many of these actions, at least until January 31, 2021. The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, along with a subsequent presidential memorandum and extension, suspends loan payments, waives interest, stops collection actions on defaulted loans, prevents wage garnishments, and prohibits Treasury offsets until this date.
The federal CARES Act automatically suspended payments and waived interest for federal student loans held by the U.S. Department of Education for six months, from March 13, 2020, until September 30, 2020. The CARES Act also stopped collection actions, wage garnishments, and Treasury offsets, and prohibited negative credit reporting during the payment suspension. Subsequently, President Trump issued a memorandum, which is like an executive order, to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, directing the Department of Education to extend these benefits through December 31, 2020. And, on December 4, 2020, DeVos announced that the federal student loan payment suspension and interest waiver will continue through January 31, 2021. Collection actions, wage garnishments, and Treasury offsets for defaulted federal student loans are also paused during this time.
However, borrowers with FFEL-Program loans, Perkins loans that aren't held by the U.S. Department of Education, or private student loans aren’t covered by the CARES Act or the president’s memorandum.
Unlike most other kinds of loans, you have the right to get out of default on your federal student loans through rehabilitation or consolidation.
To rehabilitate a defaulted student loan, you must make nine payments within 20 days of the due date over the course of ten months. The servicer will set the amount of the payments. (Under the CARES Act and its related extensions, if you were already in a rehabilitation agreement, suspended payments starting March 13, 2020, will count towards the rehabilitation. If you enter into a new rehabilitation agreement between March 13, 2020, and January 31, 2021, suspended payments that would have been made from the beginning of your agreement until January 31, 2021, will count.)
You must submit information about your income, and the servicer will calculate a “reasonable and affordable” monthly payment based on that information and the federal poverty guidelines. First, the servicer will find 150% of the poverty level for your family size. Then, the servicer will then determine your “discretionary income” by subtracting the amount from your adjusted gross income (AGI) in your most recent tax return. The payment will be equal to 15% of your discretionary income.
If the amount is still more than you can afford, you may submit documentation of your expenses. The servicer can determine a lower payment by deducting reasonable expenses. In all cases, the payment must be at least $5 per month.
Once your payment has been set, your servicer will send you documentation of the payment amount and may require a rehabilitation agreement. Collection fees usually will continue to accrue on your loan as long as it is in default and can be as much as 18.5% of the loan balance. These fees are in addition to the interest, which will also normally continue to accrue.
After you complete your rehabilitation payments, the loan will no longer be in default. The servicer will remove all reference to the default status from your credit report. But late payments will continue to be reported.
Nearly all defaulted federal student loans can be consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan. Combining your student loans through consolidation is a faster and cheaper way to get out of default on federal student loans than rehabilitation. You don’t have to pay fees to consolidate your loan, and consolidation should be completed in fewer than six months. So, collection fees will accrue for a shorter amount of time than under a rehabilitation plan.
If you consolidate into a Direct Consolidation Loan before January 31, 2021, the new consolidation loan will automatically be placed in a forbearance (payments are suspended) until this date. But once the 0% interest rate period ends after January 31, 2021, the interest rate on your loan might be higher than what you were paying before you consolidated.
To consolidate (or to start a loan rehabilitation arrangement related to your defaulted federal student loans), even during the coronavirus crisis, contact the Department of Education's Default Resolution Group, or call them at 800-621-3115 (TTY for the deaf or hearing-impaired 877-825-9923) for assistance. Learn more at StudentLoans.gov and at the Federal Student Aid's coronavirus website.
When you consolidate, you must choose a servicer for your loan. This opportunity can be an advantage if you’ve had a bad experience with your current servicer. You will also select a repayment plan.
You’ll have to make three payments before consolidating unless you choose an income-based repayment plan (IBR, PAYE, REPAYE, or ICR). If you're married and applying for an income-based repayment plan, your spouse must usually also sign the request. Also, keep in mind that you will have to submit income verification each year that you’re enrolled in an income-based repayment plan.
The default status of the previous loan, as well as late payments, will remain on your credit report for the full amount of time allowed under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
A few other options for getting out of default are getting a discharge, repaying the full loan amount, or refinancing the loan.
In some cases, you might qualify for student loan forgiveness (also called a loan "discharge" or "cancellation"). If you think you qualify for loan forgiveness under one of the many programs, you should apply even if you’re in default. Though, you might have to get out of default to qualify.
If you have money available, it could make sense to pay off the loan.
Private lenders usually require a cosigner. Depending on the cosigner’s credit score, a private lender might be willing to refinance your defaulted loan. Sometimes, it makes sense to refinance a federal student loan as a private loan, but you will lose access to federal repayment plans, repayment incentives, and forgiveness programs. Make sure that it's in your best interest before you do so.
To find out more about how to get out of default, ask your servicer. If you need help dealing with your servicer, or need information about your available options, consider consulting with a student loan attorney or debt settlement attorney who deals with student loans.