Feds Are Docking Social Security Payments For Unpaid College Loans

It’s no secret that falling behind on student loan payments can squash a borrower’s hopes of building savings, buying a home or even finding work. Now, thousands of retirees are learning that defaulting on student-debt can threaten something that used to be untouchable: their Social Security benefits.

According to government data, compiled by the Treasury Department at the request of SmartMoney.com, the federal government is withholding money from a rapidly growing number of Social Security recipients who have fallen behind on federal student loans. From January through August 6, the government reduced the size of roughly 115,000 retirees’ Social Security checks on those grounds. That’s nearly double the pace of the department’s enforcement in 2011; it’s up from around 60,000 cases in all of 2007 and just 6 cases in 2000.

The amount that the government withholds varies widely, though it runs up to 15%. Assuming the average monthly Social Security benefit for a retired worker of $1,234, that could mean a monthly haircut of almost $190. “This is going to catch an awful lot of people off guard and wreak havoc on their financial lives,” says Sheryl Garrett, a financial planner in Eureka Springs, Ark.

Many of the retirees aren’t even in hock for their own educations. Consumer advocates say that in the majority of the cases they’ve seen, the borrowers went into debt later in life to help defray education costs for their children or other dependents. Harold Grodberg, an elder law attorney in Bayonne, N.J., says he’s worked with at least six clients in the past two years whose problems started with loans they signed up for to help pay for their grandchildren’s tuition. Other attorneys say they’re working with older borrowers who had signed up for the federal PLUS loan — a loan for parents of undergraduates — to cover tuition costs.

Deanne Loonin, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, says she’s been working with an 83-year-old veteran whose Social Security benefits have been reduced for the past five years. The client fell behind on a federal loan that he signed up for in the ’90s to help with his son’s tuition costs; Loonin says the government’s cuts have left the client without enough cash to pay for medications for heart problems and other ailments.

Roughly 2.2 million student-loan debtors were 60 and older during the first quarter of 2012, and nearly 10% of their loans were 90 days or more past due, up from 6% during the first quarter of 2005, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “It’s really a unique problem we haven’t had to face before, and it’s only going to grow,” says Robert Applebaum, founder of Student Debt Crisis, a nonprofit advocacy group in Staten Island, N.Y.

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