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Important Differences Between Federal and Private Student Loans

Student loan borrowers commonly wonder whether they should refinance federal loans into private loans. There are many factors to consider in the case of federal loans, such as interest subsidies and possible forgiveness (but often with income tax consequences) paired with interest rates that are often lower in the case of private loans. Knowing the differences between federal and private student loans is imperative when making this decision.

Most notably, federal student loans are generally forgiven upon death whereas private lenders can, and generally  will pursue an estate for amounts owed by deceased borrowers.

Before refinancing your federal student loans into private ones, consider the cost of the extra life insurance you will need to purchase to cover the debt and, if you have already refinanced, be sure that your insurance coverage is adequate so that amounts intended for your family do not instead pay back creditors. When planning for federal student loan forgiveness, do not forget to account for any associated cancellation of debt income and purchase adequate insurance to cover the anticipated tax burden. The income tax on cancellation of debt income regarding federal student loans forgiven due to death was eliminated by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act but this change is set to expire at the end of 2025 unless extended by Congress.

Similarly, consider any federal interest subsidies that may be available before refinancing. In some cases, the offset of the federal interest subsidy combined with the cost of the additional life insurance needed to cover the private loan debt makes refinancing a disadvantageous move.

In all cases, be sure to discuss the extent and type of your student loan debt and your repayment plan with your estate planning attorney. Planning for federal student loans is notoriously difficult because they are a moving target. The rules surrounding forgiveness, associated income tax consequences, repayment plans and interest subsidies can be changed at any time by any administration. Until a borrower's loans are actually forgiven or paid off, the rules may be changed in the middle of the game which can make planning very dynamic. It is imperative to monitor the laws surrounding student loans and how they may affect repayment options, forgiveness options and associated income tax consequences.

© 2020 Varnum LLPNational Law Review, Volume IX, Number 248


About this Author

Rebecca Wrock Estate Planning Attorney Varnum Law

Rebecca is a member of the Estate Planning Practice Team. She advises clients on all aspects of estate planning and trusts, including probate avoidance, asset protection, special purpose trusts and elder law matters including Medicaid, veterans and special needs planning.

In addition to her law degree, Rebecca holds a Tax LL.M., which allows her to provide an additional level of knowledge critical to estate planning matters. She also has unique focus and experience in planning for companion animals (pet trusts) and has been recognized for her contribution to legal education in this...