Question: I am married but unemployed, and my husband refuses to pay my student loans, which I had before we were dating. Do I have access to the money? Yes. But if I were to touch it, it could cause a divorce because he feels that it’s not his responsibility, as we were not together at the time I acquired the student loans. Is there any way to get out of it? Or is there some type of loophole? I haven’t worked in years. I don’t even know how I would repay these back on my own.
Need help repaying student loans or other debt? E-mail [email protected].
Answer: The short answer, at least in your case, is this: In general, since you took out the loans before you were married, “there’s no loophole and your husband isn’t legally responsible for your debt,” says Leslie H. Tayne, financial attorney and founder of the Tayne Law Group.
Even if a couple is married when one spouse takes out a student loan, the debt may still belong to the person who took it out; however, a spouse would be responsible in situations like if they cosigned the student loan or if the loan was taken out after the marriage and the couple lives in a community property state such as Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin.
That said, “if you refinanced and put both of your names on the loan, your husband then becomes legally responsible for the debt,” says Tayne. And something else to note: At some point, Tayne says being delinquent on federal loans can mean the government confiscating joint tax return money. “This could impact you if you file taxes jointly as a married couple. They can also garnish your Social Security if the loan goes into default,” says Tayne.
For anyone in a similar situation, but with private loans, Tayne says you could get sued by the servicer for not paying. “If you default on a private loan, seek out a student loan attorney. This way, you may be able to avoid a judgment against any property you own and if a husband and wife own property together, you can [try to] avoid having a lien put on it,” says Tayne.
How you can pay off student loans
All that said, your question now is probably how you are supposed to pay off student loans with no income. Although everyone’s federal student loans are in forbearance until May 1, 2022, Rebecca Safier, certified student loan counselor and education finance expert at Student Loan Hero, says, “You may be able to [further] postpone payments through deferment or forbearance. Both of these options let you pause payments temporarily, though interest might continue to accrue on your balance.” That said, as Cecilia Clark, student loan expert at NerdWallet, notes: “This is a short-term solution. Longer term, you may want to consider an income-driven repayment plan,” says Clark.
Tayne also recommends an income-based repayment plan: “You should contact your servicer and explain that you’re unemployed and request an income-based payment plan,” says Tayne. Safier adds: “Payments on an income-driven repayment plan can be as low as $0/month and you can have your balance forgiven after 20 or 25 years. But you’ll need to file taxes separately from your husband if you want the plan to determine payments based on your income alone, rather than your joint income,” says Safier.
This issue underscores a bigger issue that many couples face: The importance of having difficult conversations about money with a potential life partner before merging your finances — and if that didn’t happen, really being able to open up about things and come to some consensus about the issues. “You might benefit from some financial counseling to help you come to an agreement on how you should manage your money as a married couple,” says Jen Grant, a certified financial advisor at Perryman Financial Advisory.
It may be that, even after therapy, your husband doesn’t see your loans as all or part his responsibility. Grant’s advice: “You must have some skills if these are student loans. The job market is the best it has been in the recent past. Now’s a good time to be looking and I would encourage you to get a job and be financially independent.”
Ultimately, this scenario should empower anyone struggling with paying back loans to gain a better understanding of their options. “Find out what’s on your credit report and what your obligations are. Speak to the creditor, tell them when you don’t understand something and ask them to explain it to you,” says Tayne.