My mother co-signed student loans for my now disabled sister. How can we pay them back?

How to get out of student loan debt.

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Question: My mother co-signed my sister’s student loan for her online school, but life got in the way of my sister and due to her mental health (she is now considered totally disabled) she was unable to make her payments. Then the student loan company kind of changed the student loan to make my mom the primary owner of that debt, and my sister isn’t even on the student loan anymore.

My father passed away a few years ago and my mother received some money from his life insurance, but it wasn’t much. It saddens me that the only income he has left is taken by a student loan company. Is there any advice I can give her to give her a glimmer of hope? I emailed a lawyer who said there was not much to do as she was the co-signer and was responsible for it. I find it appalling that there is no protection for her as my mum does not speak English and she may not have been informed of the details of the loan as everything was in English.

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To respond: Unfortunately, while your mother agreed to co-sign the original loan, she agreed to legally repay it in case her daughter couldn’t. “If co-signers are struggling to meet their student debt bill each month, they only have the options available from the private lender,” says Anna Helhoski, student loan expert at NerdWallet. That said, “some private lenders promise to discharge the debt if the primary borrower becomes totally and permanently disabled,” says Andrew Pentis, licensed student loan counselor and higher education finance expert at Student Loan Hero. But other private lenders can only do this, for example, if the main borrower dies.

So what should your mother do now? If she can’t make payments, the pros say you should contact your student lender to negotiate new payment terms or temporarily reduce payments. “Otherwise, the only other options might be to try to settle the debt with the lender or pursue private student loan discharge through bankruptcy, which can be difficult and expensive,” says Helhoski.

But don’t despair, because that doesn’t mean your mother is without options. “If she has a limited income, it might be wise for her to set up a debt management plan with a nonprofit credit counseling agency. That way, she and her credit counselor could set up a loan repayment over three to five years, perhaps at a reduced interest rate, and her counselor could mediate,” says Pentis. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) and the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA) both offer national resources for nonprofit credit counseling.

Even before committing to such a plan, your mom can probably get a free consultation from an NFCC-accredited nonprofit. For example, “at GreenPath [a financial wellness nonprofit], you can talk to a student loan counselor about all your options and build a personalized plan, all without opening your wallet. If a more drastic strategy like filing for bankruptcy as a way to pay off the debt is needed, the advisor can offer a recommendation,” says Pentis.

Another option, if your mom is able to get a co-signer for the loan (she may need one), would be to refinance the loan at a lower rate with another private lender. “She could extend the term of the loan to keep her monthly payments low, although it would increase the overall cost of the loan due to accrued interest. The refinance eligibility criteria are pretty rigid, so your mom or the co-signer would need strong credit to make up for the limited cash flow,” says Pentis.

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