Why a single mom is stuck paying her ex husband's student debt — and needs his permission to make any changes to her payments

  • Biden signed into law a bill allowing student-loan borrowers who combined balances with a spouse to separate their loans.

  • But a year later, the law has yet to be implemented — and it'll take until late 2024 at the earliest.

  • It's leaving many borrowers in limbo, with some having to pay the debt of their ex-spouse.

Theresa, 51, divorced her then-husband in 2016. Seven years later, she's still paying off his student debt.

After Theresa — who requested her last name be withheld for privacy — graduated from college in the 90s, she and her ex-husband decided that combining their student debt balances would be the best option for them financially since it would allow them to pay off the debt together with a single interest rate.

They made the decision to combine their balances in 2003, and their loans became part of the spousal joint consolidation loan program. However, Congress shuttered the program in 2006, meaning borrowers who combined their debt before then had no way to separate their balances in the event of a divorce, domestic violence, or other financial reasons. That's why Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. David Price introduced the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act of 2021 — and last year, President Joe Biden signed the legislation into law.

A key feature of the new law is that one spouse can apply for relief even if the other is being uncooperative. "The critical thing is that this bill also allows a disadvantaged spouse to apply," Price previously told Insider. "If their spouse is unresponsive, abusive, or economically irresponsible, the spouse can apply for the severance of the loan, where his or her portion of it is assigned."

But it's been nearly a year since the law was passed, and the Education Department stated the "process will not be fully implemented until late 2024 at the earliest." The guidance did not include a reasoning for this timeline.  Borrowers do have the option to request their servicer place their loans in forbearance until then, the department wrote in its guidance. They wouldn't owe payments, and if approved for administrative forbearance, their interest rates would be set to zero.

That's left Theresa — and other borrowers with spousal loans — in a state of limbo because her loans are privately-held, meaning they did not qualify for the federal student-loan payment pause, and she's encountered issues placing her loans on administrative forbearance. Though she started with a balance of $17,000 before consolidation, her total balance now stands at just over $30,000, according to documents reviewed by Insider, the majority of which she said belonged to her ex.

"It's been devastating," Theresa said. "So in many ways, it feels almost like my divorce hasn't been finalized. When you go through the divorce process, the first step is a legal separation which protects you financially from your soon-to-be ex-spouse. So you'd have some protection if they make some poor financial decisions. But in this case, it's like the goalpost for divorce just keeps moving."

'They're just not regular student loans'

Earlier this year, the Education Department released guidance for borrowers with spousal loans on the process for separation after the bill to do so was signed into law. Per the guidance, borrowers will either be able to submit a joint application with their spouse or do so individually, but since it's not yet available, borrowers should contact the Federal Student Aid Ombudsman Group to indicate they intend to apply to separate their loans.

Borrowers with federal direct loans can contact their servicers to request to be placed in forbearance until the process is implemented, and the department said lenders are "encouraged to grant discretionary forbearances" to those with privately-held loans in the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program.

Theresa said her student-loan servicer has yet to grant her administrative forbearance, and when she attempted to seek a hardship forbearance, she was told she needed her ex-husband's permission because she is not the primary borrower on the loan.

"I have no access. I can't see the account online," she said. "I can barely get through when I call because everything is under his name. I don't exist in their system."

Brigid, a 55-year-old borrower with spousal loans, told Insider she's experienced a similar dilemma. After six months of back-and-forth with her servicer to request administrative forbearance, she said she finally received it this past week — but she said she's frustrated that interest continued to accumulate during that time.

Her husband was also diagnosed with cancer about a year ago, and she attempted to get a deferment on her loans due to his medical treatment. However, because of the strict nature of spousal loans, she would also have to meet the hardship requirements by, for example, also having cancer in order to receive the deferment.

"It is extraordinary, and that is the perfect illustration of what a mess these loans are. They're just not regular student loans," Brigid said. "They're horrible. They really are. That was the worst kick in the pants for us."

'It's just emotionally exhausting'

For borrowers with joint loans who separated from their spouse, the inability to make decisions about repayment individually can take a toll — especially when dealing with the bureaucracy of student-loan servicers. Theresa said that at one point, her servicer mixed up her address and the address of her ex-husband, but when she called to have that fixed, she was told she could not make any changes without her ex's permission.

"It's probably going to be at least an hour wait on hold. And then when I get to the phone tree, it'll take me probably three or four times just to get to a person because when I enter my identifying information and birth date, they don't recognize me," Theresa said. "So it's just emotionally exhausting to be reminded each time that you don't really exist in the system, but they'll gladly take your payment."

Elizabeth, 43, combined her balance with her husband in 2005 to lock in a lower interest rate — and she told Insider she wants to separate their balance so it no longer gets reported twice on their credit reports. Since both her and her husband are liable for the debt, the full amount of their balance shows up on each of their credit reports. But she's been unable to receive administrative forbearance, and she's frustrated borrowers with spousal loans are blocked from opportunities federal borrowers are receiving.

"It's just the whole concept of treating married people differently for this type of loan has been a nightmare of unequal rules," Elizabeth said. "I will pay this debt one way or the other. What I'm angry about is that I paid hundreds of dollars in interest while everybody else's interest was frozen in time through no choices of my own. And I would have paid my debt down faster and I might even be debt-free if I had been treated the same as every other person."

All borrowers who are hoping to separate their balances with a spouse can do right now is wait for the Education Department to implement the law — and continue to contact their servicers for administrative forbearance. Still, as Insider previously reported, servicers are already swamped with the federal student-loan system starting back up again in October, and getting help from customer service is no easy feat, leaving many borrowers without answers.

"I'm a single parent, and life is uncertain and I need to do what I need to do to protect myself and my daughter," Theresa said. "And so, as much as it kills me every month, I make that payment because I don't really have any other good options at this point."

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