The death of someone we love is always devastating, and the surrealism of such a profound loss is almost always compounded by the absurd to-do list of affair tidying. Bills and subscriptions must be canceled. People must be notified; paperwork, filed. It's a bizarre feeling and one that's virtually impossible to prepare for, especially if the person you're burying is a child.
Marcia DeOliveira-Longinetti's experience with the strange bureaucracy of death and final affairs got even weirder, however, when she notified the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority that her son, Kevin, had been murdered and would be unable to pay back his student loan.
She got a response quickly enough — a letter that offered condolences but made it clear in no uncertain terms that DeOliveira-Longinetti, who co-signed the loan with her son, would be responsible for paying the entire outstanding balance anyway. Why? Her child's death did not "meet the threshold for loan forgiveness."
There is absolutely nothing she can do about it; she'll just have to keep paying the loan that was taken out to fund her son's future, tragedy notwithstanding. She will continue to pay nearly $200 a month for the greater part of the next decade, as she has 92 payments left to make.
The story has gotten a lot of attention because of how shocking it seems. How is it possible that these debts aren't discharged even in death? How coldhearted do you have to be to tell a grieving mother, "Sucks to be you, but pay up"?
But in truth, the ferocity with which some student loan debt is collected is staggering. People who have defaulted due to cancer diagnosis or unexpected job loss face wage garnishment, aggressive collections and asset seizure in some states. In New Jersey, where DeOliveira-Longinetti lives, it isn't uncommon for the state to just cut to the chase and sue people who can't or won't pay, often for more than what they initially owed.
What that comes down to is that people like DeOliveira-Longinetti face a choice: Pay the debt, or go to court. She'll pay, because who can afford to be sued? That's pretty much what aggressive lenders like New Jersey's "Assistance" program hope she'll do. It feels a little like extortion in this case.
Of course, lenders have the right to go after people who don't pay. They are lenders, not givers. But there is a difference between what is legally right — collecting the money you're owed — and what is ethically right, which is forgiving debt in certain, extreme cases. This definitely qualifies. The federal government agreed. DeOliveira-Longinetti was able to have that portion of Kevin's student loan forgiven fairly easily. And maybe if she hadn't been a co-signer on her son's loan, she wouldn't be faced with a monthly reminder of just how much she's lost in the form of a student loan statement with her dead son's name on it.
But she is. Like many, many parents, she co-signed her child's student loan, hoping the education he would buy with it would leave him capable of paying it back. Who imagines that their child will die so young that they won't even have time enough to use the college education they worked so hard to get? Many people co-sign loans without ever knowing there's a possibility that if the unimaginable happens, they'll still be responsible for the balance.
Lenders have the power to discharge debt in situations like this one, and in many cases, they use that power. It's hard to argue that doing so is anything other than the ethically correct thing to do. DeOliveira-Longinetti's son didn't skip town or shirk his duties; he was murdered. His mother isn't trying to get one over on a system that's so hard-nosed on its "pay up or else" policy that it actually recommends taking out life insurance whenever you co-sign a loan. She's trying to mourn her son.
If you can look at a situation like this and see anything other than ugly, opportunistic greed, then it's very possible you missed your calling in the lucrative business of brokering student loans. You might consider getting in now, when the system is still so rigged that even the death of a young man means a sizable payday.
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