Over 42.8 million Americans have student loans, making it one of the most common forms of debt in the United States. While the amount of student loan debt has increased in recent years, it remains one of the most challenging types of debt to discharge through bankruptcy. However, the Department of Education recently reformed its policies to make the discharge process easier and more accessible to student loan borrowers. In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about the new bankruptcy discharge process for student loans.
Adversary Proceedings and “Undue Hardship”
In order to be considered for student loan discharge, individuals must initiate a separate lawsuit within their bankruptcy case called an “adversary proceeding”. During this process, the debtor is essentially suing the student loan lender. To do so, however, the debtor must demonstrate that he or she is experiencing “undue hardship” as a result of the loans.
Prior to these policy changes “undue hardship” was an undefined term in the bankruptcy code, which made it challenging for courts to judge each case by universal standards – leaving a lot of room for interpretation.
In the past, most courts used something called the “Brunner Test” to determine who qualified for student loan discharge. This test was originally created in a 1987 court case during which a woman attempted to discharge her student loans less than a year after earning her degree. The goal of the test was to deter individuals from rushing into bankruptcy immediately after graduating, and it includes three questions:
- Have you made a good-faith effort to repay the loans?
- Are you unable to maintain a minimal standard of living while making the payments?
- Is your financial situation likely to persist?
If the answer to each of these questions is “yes” and is supported by extensive evidence, then the loans can be discharged.
On the surface, this may seem like a great system for discharging student debt. However, adversary proceedings are lengthy and costly, and they often weren’t successful because the requirements to pass the Brunner Test were still highly variable. Over time the test became increasingly difficult to pass, and many legal experts think it is now close to impossible to have loans discharged through this method.
How New Policy Changes Make Student Loan Discharge More Accessible
Debtors are still required to initiate an adversary proceeding within their bankruptcy case in order to be considered for student loan discharge. The recent policy changes will ease the process by:
- Setting clear standards for what is considered “undue hardship”: The current process uses arbitrary methods to review evidence and determine whether the debtor is experiencing undue hardship. According to the Department of Justice’s recent press release, the new process will include a thorough review of the debtor’s financial situation against concrete standards. These standards will be based on data provided by the Department of Education, along with other information that could contribute to undue hardship. This will ensure each debtor is judged fairly, without room for subjectivity.
- Allowing for partial discharge if appropriate: Historically, student loans were either completely discharged or left entirely intact. The new policy changes allow for partial discharges depending on the debtor’s financial situation, which will make relief more accessible to those who are struggling with student loans.
If you are overwhelmed with debt and need relief, don’t hesitate to contact the knowledgeable bankruptcy attorneys at OlsenDaines. Whether you’re dealing with significant student loans or other types of debt, we can assess your situation and help you determine the best course of action to regain financial stability. With over 40 years of experience serving individuals and businesses throughout the state of Oregon, we know how to help you with everything from foreclosures to creditor harassment. Whatever you’re facing, we can help. Just give us a call today to schedule your free legal consultation.