Showing posts with label Will Milzarski. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Will Milzarski. Show all posts

Friday, February 16, 2018

Congress enacts teeny weeny student-loan reform legislation: Is the glass half full or half empty?

As reported by Steve Rhode, Congress passed a very modest student-loan reform bill late last year.  Titled the Stop Taxing Death and Disability Act, the new law eliminates an unfair tax on forgiven student loans.

Prior to passage of this law, the government would forgive student loans held by debtors who became permanently disabled, but the amount of the forgiven debt was considered taxable income by the IRS. You may remember the story of Will Milzarski,  a military veteran who was wounded and disabled while fighting in Afghanistan.  The Department of Education forgave about a quarter of a million dollars in student loans, but the IRS sent Mr. Milzarski a tax bill for $62,000.

The Stop Taxing Death and Disability Act, which was adopted by Congress with bipartisan support, eliminates this unfair tax provision. Under the new law, all student-loan debt (including private student loans) that is forgiven due to the death or disability of the debtor is exempt from federal income taxes.

In addition, the law gives a tax break to the parents of student-loan debtors. Parents who owe student loans on behalf of their children may obtain a student-loan discharge if their child becomes disabled.  And parents who obtain such a discharge won't be taxed on the forgiven debt.

So, is the glass half full or half empty?

On the good side, passage of this modest and noncontroversial bill is a sign that Republicans and Democrats can work together to pass student-loan reform legislation. The bill's three co-sponsors--Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Chris Coons (D-Delaware), and Angus King (I-Maine) are to be commended for getting this little bill adopted.

But on the other hand, as Mr. Rhode pointed out, the bill did not address the enormous tax liability that college borrowers face who are in income-driven repayment plans (IDRs).  More than six million student debtors are enrolled in IDRs, and most of them are making monthly loan payments so small that they will never pay off their loans.  Why? Because the monthly payments aren't large enough to cover accruing interest on the underlying debt.

People locked into IDRs are obligated to make monthly loan payments for terms that stretch out for 20, 25 and even 30 years. At the end of the repayment term, any remaining unpaid debt is forgiven, but the amount of the forgiven debt is considered taxable income.

In other words, a student debtor who successfully completes a 20-year IDR sheds one unpayable debt to the Department of Education and acquires another unpayable debt to the IRS.

Nevertheless, the fact that Congress passed the Stop Taxing Death and Disability Act is a good sign. Maybe Democrats and Republicans can build on this tiny victory to enact more sweeping student-loan reform.

For example, perhaps a bipartisan coalition could rally behind the Warren-McCaskill bill to stop the IRS from garnishing the Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters. Who in good conscience could vote against that bill?

And is it too much to hope that Congress might someday reform the Bankruptcy Code and allow suffering student-loan borrowers to discharge their crushing student loans in bankruptcy?

Will Milzarski, Wounded Veteran (photo credit: Chicago Tribune)


References

Associated Press. Wounded Michigan vet gets student loan debt forgiven, but now IRS wants $62,000Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2017.

Judith Putnam. Student debt forgiven, but wounded vet gets $62,000 tax billUSA Today, October 20, 2017.

Representative John Delaney press releaseDelaney and Katko File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt, May 5, 2017.

Representative John Katko press release. Reps. Katko and Delaney File Legislation to Help Americans Struggling with Student Loan Debt. May 8, 2017.

Steve Rhode. 15 Seconds of Positive News About Student Loans and Congress. Get Out of Debt Guy, February 15, 2108.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Department of Education forgives student-loan debt owed by a wounded veteran, but the IRS sends him a tax bill for $62,000

At age 40, Will Milzarski, an attorney, took leave from his state government job to return to the U.S. Army. After completing officer training, he served two tours of duty in Afghanistan. where he led more than 200 combat missions.

On his last day in combat, Milzarski was wounded in the face, which left him with a traumatic brain injury, hearing loss, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  He was later determined to be totally disabled.

Milzarski returned to civilian life with $223,000 in student-loan debt, most of it acquired to obtain a law degree from Thomas M. Cooley School of Law. In accordance with its policy, the Department of Education forgave all of that debt due to Milzarski's disability status.

But then this wounded veteran received a surprise. The IRS considers forgiven debt to be taxable income, and thus it sent Milzarski a tax bill for $62,000.

Milzarski summarized his experience well. "One part of our government says, 'We recognized your service, we recognize your inability to work," Milzarski said. "The other branch says 'Give us your blood.' Well, the U.S. Army already took a lot of my blood."

Nearly 400,000 disabled Americans have student-loan debt, and this obscure tax provision impacts nearly all of them. Although they are entitled to have their student loans forgiven due to their disability status, this forgiveness comes with a tax bill.

And disabled student-loan debtors are not the only people affected by the IRS forgiven-loans rule. More than 5 million student-loan debtors are in long-term, income-driven repayment plans (IDRs), and most of them are making monthly payments so low that they are not repaying the accumulated interest.

Under the terms of all IDRs (there are several varieties), college borrowers who successfully complete their 20- or 25-year repayment plans are entitled to have any remaining debt forgiven. But IDR participants, like retired Lieutenant Milzarski, will get a tax bill for the forgiven debt.

Obviously, this state of affairs is insane. President Obama recommended a repeal of the IRS rule when he was in office, but nothing  came of his suggestion.

Surely a bill to repeal the IRS forgiven-debt rule would receive bipartisan support in Congress. Who could decently oppose a repeal? In fact, President Trump can probably reverse the rule that is persecuting Mr. Milzarski simply by signing an executive order.

I predict, however, that  that nothing will be done about this problem--either legislatively or by executive action. Washington DC is in so much partisan turmoil that almost nothing positive is getting done. Under current tax law, millions of student borrowers in income-driven repayment plans will have huge tax bills waiting for them when they complete their repayment obligations and have their remaining student-loan debt forgiven.

And unlike retired Lieutenant Milzarski, who is in his forties, most IDR participants will be in their sixties or seventies when their tax bills arrive in the mail. And if they can't pay their taxes, that will not be the government's problem. The IRS will simply garnish their Social Security checks.


Retired Lieutenant Will Milzarski (photo credit Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via AP
References

Associated Press. Wounded Michigan vet gets student loan debt forgiven, but now IRS wants $62,000. Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2017.

Jillian Berman. Why Obama is forgiving the student loans of almost 400,000 peopleMarketwatch.com, April 13, 2016.

Judith Putnam. Student debt forgiven, but wounded vet gets $62,000 tax bill. USA Today, October 20, 2017.

Michael Stratford. Feds May Forgive Loans of Up to 387,000 BorrowersInside Higher Ed, April 13, 2016.