Can Retirees Apply for Student Loan Debt Relief?

A senior student learning about how to pay off student debt in retirement

An increasing number of seniors are entering retirement with unprecedented student debt. Two and a half million Americans age 62 and older owe a collective $103.9 billion in federal student loan debt. And Americans age 60 and older are the fastest-growing age group when it comes to student loan debt. Some of these are still paying off loans they took for own education. But the majority of older Americans’ student loan debt is for their children’s education. Of those, many are hoping for some form of student loan debt relief.

Carrying student debt can strain retirees’ standards of living, especially with inflation putting additional pressure on fixed budgets. The good news is that some of these borrowers may be eligible for some form of student loan debt relief. Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), income-driven repayment (IDR) plan forgiveness are two definite possibilities. A third possibility for relief was the Biden Administration’s debt relief executive order. However, after a Supreme Court ruling on June 30, 2023, that relief plan was not allowed to move forward.

Note About Eligible Debt

Unfortunately, the formalized student debt relief programs apply only to federal student loans. However, there are other options to get relief for private student loans, such as bankruptcy. Other forms of private student loan relief may be available in specific circumstances, but you would have to learn about them directly from your lender.

On August 24, 2022, the Biden Administration announced sweeping student debt forgiveness of up to $10,000 for borrowers with 2020 or 2021 adjusted gross incomes of less than $125,000 or $250,000 for married couples. Borrowers with qualifying incomes who also received a Pell Grand would receive an additional $10,000 in forgiveness. 

After months in limbo, the Supreme Court struck down Biden’s debt relief program on June 30th, 2023. Declaring the program an overreach of executive powers, the court’s decision effectively meant that thousands of borrowers would not receive their expected relief funds.

Other Relief for Parent PLUS Loans 

While Biden’s student loan relief program is no longer available, other established student loan relief options are. Some of these options are even available to parent PLUS loan holders. 

For example, parent PLUS loans are eligible for discharge in a limited number of circumstances. They include a child whose education the retiree borrowed who passes away, the child’s school closed, fraudulent loans, or a child who withdrew from the school and was not paid a legally-required refund. If you believe your parent PLUS loan may qualify for discharge due to any of these, contact your loan servicer. 

Parent PLUS loans can also be consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan and repaid over an Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) Plan. Your payments under an ICR Plan will never exceed 20% of your discretionary income. Your remaining balance after 25 years on the plan will be forgiven. 

Forgiveness For Borrowers on Income-Driven Repayment Plans 

The ICR Plans mentioned above are just one of the four income-driven repayment (IDR) plans for federal student loans

The other three options, Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment (REPAYE) Plans, Pay As You Earn Repayment (PAYE) Plans, and Income-Based Repayment (IBR) Plans are only available to individuals with federal student loans that are not parent PLUS loans. 

However, there are no age limits on any of these plans, so they are available to retirees and non-retirees. 

Each kind of IDR plan has different qualifications and repayment options. On thing they have in common is that the borrower’s remaining debt is forgiven after making 20 or 25 years of payments on the plan. Whether the number of years is 20 or 25 depends on: 

  • The particular IDR plan enrolled in 
  • Whether the borrower has any loans taken for graduate or professional studies in the case of a REPAYE Plan 
  • When the borrower first took out loans in the case of an IBR Plan 

If you are retired, your income may be significantly lower than it was during your working years. Entering an IDR plan to pay as little as possible with an eye to future forgiveness may be a smart move. 

Public Service Loan Forgiveness 

Another popularly sought form of student loan relief is Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

This forgiveness is for individuals who make 120 monthly payments in a qualifying repayment plan (such as an IDR plan) while working full-time for a government or not-for-profit. So, it’s not relevant for retired individuals unless they are willing to reenter the workforce for at least 10 years. 

Note that if you have parent PLUS loans you’re looking to get discharged under PSLF, you would only qualify if you consolidate your parent PLUS loans into a Direct Consolidation Loan and enter into an ICR Plan. 

You can learn more about this program here

Other Student Loan Debt Relief Options 

There are other, rarer student loan relief options, such as relief due to disability or relief due to forgery

Student loan debt relief is an important issue for all ages but particularly older borrowers on a fixed income. While this issue plays out in the courts, seniors should seek out student loan relief where possible.

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