Can You Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy?

Recent court rulings and lawmakers' support to expand relief could help borrowers meet the stringent standards.

Anna HelhoskiOctober 22, 2020
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Student loan borrowers who seek to have their debt canceled in bankruptcy — what's known as discharge — typically find it an expensive process with standards that can be difficult to meet. But recent bankruptcy court rulings and lawmakers' support of relief for overburdened borrowers may signal a change is coming.

In January, a New York court discharged over $200,000 of student loan debt for one borrower. Then, in August, a federal appeals court ruling eliminated $200,000 for a Colorado couple who held 11 private student loan accounts. And in September, a New York judge ruled to enforce a prior bankruptcy discharge of a borrower’s $400,000 of federal student loans that a servicer had failed to carry out.

These decisions could serve as a precedent for future bankruptcy cases involving student loans, says John Rao, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

"A lot of people, even some of the lawyers who represent consumers, thought for years that you really shouldn’t even try because there's not a chance you’ll win, but I think everyone is looking at it now with sort of a fresh look," Rao says.

Courts aren’t the only example of potentially easing standards. The House of Representatives recently took up a bill that would expand bankruptcy relief to more student loan borrowers. And the platform of former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, included a bankruptcy reform proposal to end rules that make it "nearly impossible" to discharge private student loan debt.

A possible reason for a shift toward dismissing these loans in bankruptcy is the student loan debt crisis in the U.S.

Overall student loan debt increased 107% in the past decade, according to data analyzed by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Higher education experts say the extra hoops borrowers must jump through to get student loan relief with bankruptcy make discharge more expensive and difficult to achieve than canceling other types of consumer debt.

"To get to those hoops, you usually need more money to pay, and usually the people who are trying to declare bankruptcy on their loans don’t have that money available to them," says Douglas Webber, associate professor of economics at Temple University.

Why student loan discharge in bankruptcy poses a challenge

Here’s why student loans are so onerous to get rid of in a bankruptcy filing:

It’s cost-prohibitive. As Webber says, the whole process is expensive for borrowers who can expect to pay several thousand dollars for filing and attorney’s fees.

Bankruptcy courts are notoriously stringent. After filing for bankruptcy, a second action, an Adversary Proceeding, must be filed to ask the court to find that the debt would prove an "undue hardship" to repay. Then, borrowers have to prove they meet the standards of "undue hardship," a concept that’s left to bankruptcy judges to interpret.

The undue hardship standard is especially difficult for federal student loan borrowers to prove due to the safety nets offered to those borrowers, such as payment pauses and repayment plans.

To meet the standard, cases typically must pass the "Brunner test," named for a student who attempted to discharge her student loans in bankruptcy less than a year after earning her master's degree (she was denied).

To pass the Brunner test, loans must meet these conditions:

  • Payments would keep you from maintaining a minimal standard of living.

  • You’re unlikely to earn enough money to make payments on your loans in the foreseeable future, usually due to a disability.

  • You’ve already made good faith efforts to repay your loans such as making some payments or negotiating a lower payment plan.

The Brunner test is more difficult for federal loan borrowers to meet because of income-driven repayment, which is available to all federal direct loan holders. This plan helps borrowers keep payments manageable by setting payments at a portion of their income. It could be as low as $0 for those who are unemployed or underemployed (those who earn below 150% of the poverty line).

How to strategize student loan discharge in bankruptcy

You won’t know if your student loans are discharged until the end of bankruptcy proceedings so make sure to pay what you can until then.

You must apply for Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Contact a student loan lawyer or bankruptcy attorney with student loan experience — if you can afford to — to find out the best option for you. Otherwise, there are a few free or inexpensive resources available through Legal Services Corporation or Student Loan Borrower Assistance.

Once you’ve filed for bankruptcy, you’ll need your attorney to file a written complaint outlining your case through an Adversary Proceeding. The rest is left up to the judge to determine whether you will receive any discharge or not.

What to do if you’re denied a discharge

Bankruptcy isn’t the only option to unburden yourself of loan debt. You could file an appeal or seek an alternative resolution: settling the debt for less than you owe. You won’t have the full debt forgiven, but it may be a more achievable option.

If bankruptcy or settlement aren’t options for you, enrolling in an income-driven repayment is still the best choice to keep repayment affordable. Private loan borrowers should contact their lender to find out the options available to lower payments.

If you need additional student loan help

If bankruptcy or settlement aren’t options for you, enrolling in an income-driven repayment is still the best choice to keep repayment affordable. Private loan borrowers should contact their lender to find out the options available to lower payments.

First speak with your servicer or lender to:

  • Discuss repayment options.

  • Take a temporary payment pause.

  • Temporarily reduce your monthly payments.

If your problem is with your lender or servicer or you’re not getting the help you need, look for a legitimate student loan help organization that offers counseling. Consider these vetted resources for student loan help; they are established organizations with verified histories:

Student loan help resource

Best for

Advice on repayment plans, forgiveness programs and dispute resolution.

Comprehensive information on options for student loan borrowers.

Advocacy on behalf of all borrowers to influence policy.

Complete financial review for struggling borrowers, which can include advice on student loan options and plans for dealing with other debt.

Advice on repayment plans, help with paperwork and budget counseling.

Information for student loan borrowers and an attorney directory.

Help for borrowers who have already filed bankruptcy that did not include their student loans.

Advice on defaults, dispute resolution, collections, debt settlement and legal remedies. Licensed in Massachusetts and New York.

Advice on debt settlement, bankruptcy, default and forgiveness. Licensed in Missouri and Illinois.

Many of these organizations offer advice for free. In some cases, you may need to pay a fee, as with a certified nonprofit credit counseling agency or if you hire an attorney.

None of the organizations above calls, texts or emails borrowers with offers of debt resolution.

Offers of help that you have not sought out are likely to be scams. While it’s not illegal for companies to charge for services such as consolidation or enrollment in a payment plan, those are steps you can do yourself for free.

Avoid any debt relief companies that demand money upfront.

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