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Monday, September 3, 2012

NY Times: Debtors Struggle to Prove 'Undue Hardship' to Discharge Student Loans

New York Times:  Last Plea on School Loans: Proving a Hopeless Future:

Before the mid-1970s, debtors were able to get rid of student loans in bankruptcy court just as they could credit card debt or auto loans. But after scattered reports of new doctors and lawyers filing for bankruptcy and wiping away their student debt, resentful members of Congress changed the law in 1976. In an effort to protect the taxpayer money that is on the line every time a student or parent signs for a new federal loan, Congress toughened the law again in 1990 and again in 1998. In 2005, for-profit companies that lend money to students persuaded Congress to extend the same rules to their private loans.

But with each change, lawmakers never defined what debtors had to do to prove that their financial hardship was “undue.” Instead, federal bankruptcy judges have spent years struggling to do it themselves.

Most have settled on something called the Brunner test, named after a case that laid out a three-pronged standard for judges to use when determining whether they should discharge someone’s student loan debt. It calls on judges to examine whether debtors have made a good-faith effort to repay their debt by trying to find a job, earning as much as they can and minimizing expenses. Then comes an examination of a debtor’s budget, with an allowance for a “minimal” standard of living that generally does not allow for much beyond basics like food, shelter and health insurance, and some inexpensive recreation.

The third prong, which looks at a debtor’s future prospects during the loan repayment period, has proved to be especially squirm-inducing for bankruptcy judges because it puts them in the prediction business. This has only been complicated by the fact that many federal judicial circuits have established the “certainty of hopelessness” test. ...

No one keeps track of how many people bring undue hardship cases each year, but it appears to be under 1,000, far less than the number of people failing to make their student loan payments. In its most recent snapshot of student loan defaults, the Department of Education reported that among the more than 3.6 million borrowers who entered repayment from Oct. 1, 2008, to Sept. 30, 2009, more than 320,000 had fallen behind in their payments by 360 days or more by the end of September 2010. About 10.3 million students and their parents borrowed money under the federal student loan program during the 2010-11 school year. ...

Rafael Pardo, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, and Michelle Lacey, a math professor at Tulane University, examined 115 legal filings from the western half of Washington State. They found that 57% of bankrupt debtors who initiated an undue hardship adversary proceeding were able to get some or all of their loans discharged. Jason Iuliano, a Harvard Law School graduate who is now in a Ph.D. program in politics at Princeton, examined 207 proceedings that unfolded across the country. He found that 39% received full or partial discharges.

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