Last month, a former law student won a bid in bankruptcy court to discharge nearly $340,000 in education debt because her diagnosis of Asperger syndrome rendered her unable to repay the loans. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland found that Carol Todd, who attended (the University of Baltimore School of Law, met the difficult burden of showing that she would suffer undue hardship if forced to repay her debt.
Todd received her high school GED during the late ’80s, at age 39. She received an associate degree at Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University) and a bachelor’s degree at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland (now Notre Dame of Maryland University). She began attending law school in 1992 but did not complete the program. She went on to obtain a master’s degree from Towson University and a Ph.D. from an unaccredited online school in 2007. She filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2009. Todd pursued success in education “as a stepping stone toward a measure of liberation…to help her achieve something closer to a normal life.”
Carol’s case is a rarity. The difficulty of proving undue hardship —the majority of claims are unsuccessful — and of discharging student loans has prompted the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys to call on Congress earlier this year to pass legislation that would allow graduates to discharge loans taken out from private lenders, including for-profit companies such as banks and student loan behemoth Sallie Mae. Similar legislation has been submitted over the past two years by Congressional Democrats without making much progress, but NACBA holds hope that this will change soon.
While Todd’s story raises questions about undue hardships to borrowers due to a permanent mental disability, what does this mean for any changes to legislation when it comes to a borrower who suffers a permanent physical disability that ultimately prevents him or her from holding down a stable job to pay off student loans? Will Carol’s court decision cause lenders to increase scrutiny on prospective students with disabilities? What if the borrower is the victim of a tragic accident that leaves him in a coma? What happens when the borrower dies, but has a parent co-sign the loan?
That’s Christopher Bryski’s story. Bryski was a college student at Rutgers University when he suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2004 in a fluke accident. He was in a coma for two years before passing away in 2006. To facilitate taking out private student loans for college, his father co-signed on the loans for him. Because his father co-signed on Christopher’s student loan from Key Bank, he was obligated to continue to make payments under the terms of the private loan agreement. He paid more than $20,000 of the $50,000 debt, which forced him to come out of retirement to make the monthly payments.
Key Bank finally forgave the loan this past April, but not before the Bryski family struggled for six years after Christopher’s death to make payments and started a Change.org petition to seek help from the public to fight against the bank.
What are your thoughts on these issues? In a volatile economy, many individuals seek further education to improve their prospective job opportunities. Should student loan companies provide more transparency to borrowers with regard to accidents and disabilities that could cause them to have trouble making payments?