Student debt after life

Sep 25, 2012 No Comments by

SAN RAFAEL, Calif.—A MoveOn.com petition hit the e-mail inboxes of many Bay Area residents in early September, with an appeal to Citibank to forgive student loans in cases where students or recent grads have been permanently disabled or deceased.

Under the terms of most private student loans, once the student is no longer enrolled in the school, debt collectors start coming to collect from both the student and the co-signer.

The loss of a loved one along with their dream of a bright future, is an unbearable pain for families. Another often overlooked hardship associated with the loss of a college student, is the repayment of student loans the parents have co-signed.

Such was the case for the MoveOn petition founders, Keith and Michelle Norris, whose daughter Brittani was tragically killed in an auto accident a week before her college graduation.

(Photo Composit/Rich Legg, Kirby Hamilton) Families dealing with the loss of a student are often left with the debt of student loans.

For more than three years following their loss, the Norris family was harassed with constant demands from Citibank to repay their daughter’s outstanding student loan. “While we grieved, Citibank continued to demand payment,” the Norris’ wrote, “and we struggled to pay these bills monthly.”

While Citibank eventually caved into public pressure to forgive the Norris’ debt, they never changed their policies regarding debt forgiveness in the case of student death or permanent disability.

With the help of both SignOn.org and MoveOn.org, the Norris’ public online petition has put pressure on loan companies like Citibank, Sallie Mae, and Wells Fargo, to adopt policies of forgiveness in the cases where the student dies before graduating.

With today’s dismal job market and ever-rising tuition costs, private student loans are  the only way over 14 million students are able to attend college according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

When federal loans can’t cover all the costs of attending college, many students have to turn to private student loans requiring a co-signer, which is most often a parent.

While federal student loans are forgiven in the case of death or permanent disability, there is no such provision in the terms of private student loans. For many parents, the calls of the debt collectors are just daily reminders of their horrible loss.


“While we grieved, Citibank continued to demand payment, and we struggled to pay these bills monthly.”

— Michelle and Keith Norris, MoveOn petition founders


In the case of private loans, lenders can be difficult to track down, as the loans are often quickly sold from one company to another, making it nearly impossible for grieving parents and their lawyers to enter forgiveness negotiations.  Therefore, many financial advisors recommend life insurance to protect the co-signer in situations involving the death of a student.

In an article by Mitch Smith on InsideHigherEd.com, KeyBank spokeswoman Lynne Woodman said, “Some banks take the position that you took out the loan, you co-signed for it, you’ve got to pay it back. Some banks take the position that we will always forgive the loan if a student dies and there’s a co-signer. Others do it case by case.”

KeyBank decided to forgive one such loan for the Bryski family, who lost their son to a traumatic brain injury while a student at Rutgers University student. The Bryski’s took action on a national level with Christopher Bryski Student Loan Protection Act, which is gaining momentum in the House of Representatives. The bill requires lenders to make loan conditions in the case of death clear to students and their co-signers.  However, it does not require the lenders to forgive the debt in these cases, only how the terms under which the debt collection will be pursued.

While there have been a handful of cases where the lending companies have caved to public pressure and an onslaught of bad press, there is little protection for grieving families from the ghoulish collecting practices of loan companies.

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About the author

Alan Schooling grew up in Southern California before fleeing north to escape the heat. He has been obsessed with music for the last 24 years and had seen more concerts than he can remember. He is currently a communications major at Dominican University of California who is pursuing a career in journalism.
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