Showing posts with label Alan and Catherine Murray. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alan and Catherine Murray. Show all posts

Friday, April 21, 2017

Income-Driven Repayment Plans for Managing Crushing Levels of Student-Loan Debt: Financial Suicide

By the end of his first term in office, President Obama knew the federal student loan program was out of control. Default rates were up and millions of student borrowers had put their loans into forbearance or deferment because they were unable to make their monthly payments. Then in 2013, early in Obama's second term, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a comprehensive report titled A Closer Look at the Trillion that sketched out the magnitude of the crisis.

What to do? President Obama chose to promote income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) to give borrowers short-term relief from oppressive monthly loan payments. Obama's Department of Education rolled out two generous income-driven repayment plans:  the PAYE program, which was announced in 2012;  and REPAYE, introduced in 2016.

PAYE and REPAYE both require borrowers to make monthly payments equal to 10 percent of their adjusted gross income for 20 years: 240 payments in all.  Borrowers who make regular payments but do not pay off their loans by the end of the repayment period will have their loans forgiven, but the cancelled debt is taxable to them as income.

The higher education industry loves PAYE and REPAYE, and what's not to like? Neither plan requires colleges and universities to keep their costs in line or operate more efficiently. Students will continue borrowing more and more money  to pay exorbitant tuition prices, but  monthly payments will be manageable because they will be spread out over 20 years rather than ten.

But most people enrolling in PAYE or REPAYE are signing their own financial death warrants. By shifting to long-term, income-driven repayment plans, they become indentured servants to the government, paying a percentage of their income for the majority of their working lives.

And, as illustrated in an ongoing bankruptcy action, a lot of people who sign up for IDRs will be stone broke on the date they make their final payment.

In Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, a Kansas bankruptcy judge granted a partial discharge of student-loan debt to Alan and Catherine Murray.  The Murrays borrowed $77,000 to get bachelor's and master's degrees, and paid back 70 percent of what they borrowed.

Unfortunately, the Murrays were unable to make their monthly payments for a time, and they put their loans into deferment.  Interest accrued over the years, and by the time they filed for bankruptcy, their student-loan indebtedness had grown to $311,000--four times what they borrowed.

A bankruptcy judge concluded that the Murrays had handled their loans in good faith but would never pay back their enormous debt--debt which was growing at the rate of $2,000 a month due to accruing interest.  Thus, the judge discharged the interest on their debt, requiring them only to pay back the original amount they borrowed.

Educational Credit Management Corporation, the Murrays' student-loan creditor, argued unsuccessfully that the Murrays should be place in a 20- or 25-year income-driven repayment plan. The bankruptcy judge rejected ECMC's demand, pointing out that the Murrays would never pay back the amount they owed and would be faced with a huge tax bill 20 years from now when their loan balance would be forgiven.

ECMC appealed, arguing that the bankruptcy judge erred when he took tax consequences into account when he granted the Murrays a partial discharge of their student loans. Tax consequences are speculative, ECMC insisted; and in event, the Murrays would almost certainly be insolvent at the end of the 20-year repayment term, and therefore they would not have to pay taxes on the forgiven loan balance.

What an astonishing admission! ECMC basically conceded that the Murrays would be broke at the end of a 20-year repayment plan, when they would be in their late sixties.

So if you are a struggling student-loan borrower who is considering an IDR, the Murray case is a cautionary tale. If you elect this option, you almost certainly will never pay off your student loans because your monthly payments won't cover accumulating interest.

Thus at the end of your repayment period--20 or 25 years from now--one of two things will happen. Either you will be faced with a huge tax bill because the amount of your forgiven loan is considered income by the IRS; or--as ECMC disarmingly admitted in the Murray case--you will be broke.


References

Rohit Chopra. A closer look at the trillion. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, August 5, 2013.

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Bankr. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016).

Monday, April 10, 2017

The New York Times rightly criticizes Betsy Devos for rescinding DOE directive forbidding lenders from gouging student-loan defaulters: But the Times ignores the harm caused by income-driven repayment plans

A few days ago, the New York Times criticized Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for rescinding a Department of Education directive forbidding student-loan debt collectors from gouging borrowers who default on their  student loans. Under President Obama, DOE directed the debt collectors not to assess 16 percent penalties on defaulters who quickly agreed to payment plans that would bring their loans back into good standing.

The Time is right to Criticize DeVos. As the Times pointed out in its editorial, student borrowers in the government's direct student-loan program are now defaulting at the rate of 3,000 a day. It is unjust to assess penalties against defaulters that far exceed the administrative cost of bring defaulted loans back into good standing.

But the Times rebuke went off the rails when it touted the virtues of long-term income-driven repayment plans for distressed debtors. The Times cited allegations that the lenders were not telling loan defaulters about "affordable" income-driven repayment plans (IDRs) that might cost borrowers as little as zero a month.

The Times is simply wrong to tout IDRs as "affordable." It is true that people who enter these plans may only be obligated to make token payments and perhaps no payment at all if they are unemployed or live below the poverty line.

But many people in IDRs are making monthly payments so small that the payments do not cover accruing interest. Thus their loan balances grow larger with each passing month. People in 20- and 25-year repayment plans will find they owe much  more than they borrowed when their payment obligations come to an end.

It is true that the unpaid portion of their loans will be forgiven for people who successfully complete these IDRs, but the amount of the cancelled debt is considered income by the IRS.  Under current IRS regulations, the only people who can escape that tax bill are people who are insolvent at the time the debt is forgiven.

Does that sound affordable to you?

The pitfalls of IDRs are illustrated in Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, a 2016 bankruptcy court decision out of Kansas. The Murrays borrowed $77,000 in the 1990s to get undergraduate and graduate degrees, and they consolidated their debt in 1996 at 9 percent interest. Over the years, they made substantial payments. According to the bankruptcy judge, they paid $54,000 on their loans--about 70 percent of the amount borrowed.

But the Murrays' loans were put into deferment for some period of time when the couple could not afford to make their monthly payments. Meanwhile, interest accrued, and by 2015, their $77,000 debt had ballooned to $311,000--four times what they borrowed!

ECMC argued that the Murrays should be put into an IDR. The most generous plan called for monthly payments set at 10 percent of the Murrays' adjusted gross income.  Their monthly payment would then be only $635 a month, quite manageable for a couple whose joint income was approximately $95,000 a year.

But the bankruptcy judge rejected ECMC's proposal.  The judge pointed out that interest was growing at $65 a day--around $2,000 a month. Thus, the Murrays' monthly payments would amount to less than half of the monthly accruing interest. The Murrays' debt would grow to well over half a million dollars over the 20-year repayment period.

Thus, if the Murrays signed up for a 20-year IDR, one of two fates awaited them: either they would be faced with an enormous tax bill or they would be so broke their tax liability would be extinguished on the grounds of insolvency. In any event, the Murrays would be in their late 60s and in no financial shape to retire.

The Obama administration promoted IDRs and even rolled out new ones: PAYE and REPAYE. These plans give struggling debtors short-term relief, but a majority of the people who sign up for an IDR will never pay off their student loans.

Almost 6 million people are currently enrolled in one IDR or another, and most are not making payments large enough to cover accruing interest. Although  IDR enrollees are not technically in default, few will ever pay back their loans.

What is the solution for these people? There is only one solution: a discharge of their loan obligations in bankruptcy.  DOE will not admit this stark fact, and neither will the New York Times. But the bankruptcy courts are beginning to figure out that IDRs do not provide the "fresh start" that the bankruptcy process is intended to provide..  We should look for some blockbuster bankruptcy court decisions in the near future as the judges wake up to the charade of IDRs.

References

Editorial, The Wrong Move on Student Loans. New York Times, April 76, 2017.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Student Loan Crisis is WORSE than the 2008 Housing Crisis: The Return of "The Big Short"

As everyone knows, the housing market collapsed in 2008, triggering a major economic crisis in the United States. The nation descended into recession, and the national economy is still recovering from this catastrophe.

Steve Rhode and others have described a student loan "bubble," and I share these commentators' view that the federal student loan program as it functions now is unsustainable.  Approximately 42 million borrowers collectively owe $1.4 trillion in student-loan debt, and families are beginning to experience sticker shock. Enrollments are declining at the for-profit schools, and nonprofit liberal arts colleges are desperately scrambling to maintain their enrollments.

Many people may think the student-loan crisis--no matter how bad it is--is just a small tremor compared to the 2008 housing crisis, which was an earthquake.

But in fact, the student loan crisis has produced more casualties in terms of human suffering than the housing collapse ten years ago.

Earlier this week, Alan White of Credit Slip, an online news source on economic matters, commented on a housing-data report released recently by the Urban Institute. Based on the Urban Institute's data, White assessed the total damage from the subprime housing crisis. From 2007 to 2016, 6.7 million homes went into foreclosure and another 2 million homes were lost through short sales or deeds-in lieu of foreclosure. Thus the total number of homeowners who lost their homes in the subprime housing debacle is about 8.7 million. If we assume a majority of those homes were owned by married couples, then the total number of individuals who were injured in the housing crisis is about 16 million.

That's a lot of people, but the casualty list from the student loan crisis is larger. 

As the New York Times reported in 2015, about 10 million student borrowers have defaulted on their loans or have loans in delinquency. Almost 6 million debtors are now in income-driven repayment programs (IDRs), and those people are locked into repayment plans that last from 20 to 25 years. A majority of those people are making payments so low they are not servicing accruing interest, which means their student loans balances are growing larger (negatively amortizing) with each passing month.

So we're talking about 16 million people who defaulted, have delinquent loans, or who are in IDRs. And millions more have student loans in forbearance or deferment, which means they are not making payments on their loans but are not counted as defaulters. For most of those people, interest is accruing, which means their student loan balances are growing. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported a total of about 9 million people in deferment or forbearance in its 2013 report titled A Closer Look at the Trillion

All these numbers are fluid. Some delinquent student-loan borrowers will bring their loans current, and some defaulters will rehabilitate their loans. And some people will move from deferment status to some form of IDR.

But it is safe to say--indeed conservative to say--that about 20 million Americans have outstanding student loans they can't pay back. That's 4 million more people that were injured by the housing crisis. It's The Big Short all over again.

Alan and Catherine Murray, who received a partial discharge of their student loans in a Kansas bankruptcy court last year, are the poster children for this calamity. They borrowed $77,000 to finance their studies, and both obtained a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. They paid back $54,000--about 70 percent of what they borrowed. 

But the Murrays experienced hard times and put their loans into deferment for a few years while interest accrued at the rate of 9 percent. They now owe $311,000! Will they ever pay that back? No, they won't.

Yes, the federal loan program is in a bubble, and the suffering has already begun. The federal government is propping up this house of cards and disguising the real default rate. Congress doesn't have the courage to address the problem, and the Trump administration appears to be clueless

We must look to the federal bankruptcy courts for relief. The Murrays obtained a partial dischage of their their loans from a Kansas bankruptcy judge last year, but their case is now on appeal.  

Stay tuned for further developments.

The Big Short


References

Rohit Chopra. A closer look at the trillion. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, August 5, 2013.

Editorial, "Why Student Debtors Go Unrescued." New York Times, October 7, 2015, A 26.

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Banrk. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016).

Steve Rhode. The Student Bubble That Many Don't Want To See. Get Out Of Debt Guy, July 15, 2016.

Jill Schlesinger. Looking for the next bubble. Chicago Tribune, August 24, 2016.

Alan White, Foreclosure Crisis Update. Credit Slip, April 5, 2017.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Student Debtors in the Bankruptcy Courts and the Battle of Britain: "Never have the few come from the ranks of so many"

The Battle of Britain was perhaps the most thrilling episode of the Second World War. During the summer and autumn of 1940, Hitler sent the Luftwaffe to bomb London, hoping to pummel the British into submission.

But Hitler failed. A handful of young pilots in the Royal Air Force clawed their way into the skies day after day and inflicted unacceptable casualties on the German Air Force. Before the year was out, Hitler gave up, and the Battle of Britain was won.

You may think it inappropriate to attach a military analogy to the ongoing battle between oppressed student borrowers and the federal government's debt collectors that is taking place now in the bankruptcy courts. But the comparison is apt.

Eight million people have defaulted on their student loans and at least 15 million more aren't paying them back.  If these people were indebted for any other reason than college loans, they would get relief from their debt in the bankruptcy courts.

But most oppressed debtors don't even try. Jason Iuliano reported that almost a quarter of a million people with student loans filed for bankruptcy in 2007, but only a few hundred even attempted to discharge their student loans.

But a few brave souls have filed adversary proceedings, where they've fought the U.S. Department of Education and its loan collectors--notably Educational Credit Management Corporation. Incredibly, some of them have been successful, and important appeals are now in the federal appellate courts.

Alexandra Acosta Conniff, an Alabama school teacher, acting without an attorney, defeated ECMC in 2015. ECMC appealed, but Alexandra is now represented by an eminent attorney, retired bankruptcy judge Eugene Wedoff.  I believe Alexandra will ultimately prevail.

Alan and Catherine Murray, a Kansas couple in their late 40s, beat ECMC last year, winning a partial discharge of their student loans, which had ballooned to almost a third of a million dollars. They were ably represented by George Thomas, a Kansas lawyer and ex-Marine.  Again, ECMC appealed, but I am confident Mr. Thomas and the Murrays will win through.

Overburdened student-loan debtors have been hounded and harassed by the U.S. government and its predatory agents for years, but some are now fighting back and they are beginning to find sympathetic bankruptcy judges.

Winston Church, in one of the immortal sentences in the English language, paid this tribute to the pilots of the RAF. "Never was so much owed by so many to so few."

And Boris Johnson, author of The Churchill Factor, pointed out that most of the RAF pilots came from the English working and middle classes. Few Oxford men climbed into those Hurricane fighter planes during the summer of 1940. And so Johnson added this fitting epitaph to Churchill's tribute: "Never have the few come from the ranks of so many."

So here is a message for the millions of oppressed student-loan debtors: Hang on! A few courageous individuals, aided by sturdy lawyers, are fighting for you in the federal courts. And they will ultimately win. The bankruptcy laws are going to change and become more compassionate toward honest but unfortunate individuals who were victimized by our corrupt and unjust student loan program.


"Never have the few come from the ranks of so many."


References



Acosta-Conniff v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, No. 12-31-448-WRS, 2015 Bankr. LEXIS 937 (M.D. Ala. March 25, 2015).

Cloud, R. C. & Fossey, R. (2014). Facing the student debt crisis: Restoring the integrity of the federal student loan program. Journal of College and University Law, 40, 101-32.

In re Roth, 490 B.R. 908 (9th Cir. BAP 2013).

Iuliano, J. (2012). An Empirical Assessment of Student Loan Discharges and the Undue Hardship Standard. American Bankruptcy Law Journal, 86, 495-525.

Murray v. Educational Credit Management Corporation, Case No. 14-22253, ADV. No. 15-6099, 2016 Bankr. LEXIS 4229 (Bankr. D. Kansas, December 8, 2016).