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Even divorce might not free you from your ex's student loan debt

Angela Powell, a business analyst in Texas, has been trying to untangle a joint consolidation loan from her ex-husband since their divorce in 2014. Powell's ex-husband stopped regularly paying on the loan years ago.
Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
Angela Powell, a business analyst in Texas, has been trying to untangle a joint consolidation loan from her ex-husband since their divorce in 2014. Powell's ex-husband stopped regularly paying on the loan years ago.

Angela Powell met her "prince" during her freshman year of college. She had dreams of a happy marriage, a successful career and a couple of great kids. After graduation, she got married and started on the other two, attending business school while her husband got his law degree, before the two settled down to start a family in Arizona.

Around that time, they decided to consolidate their loans under a new Department of Education program for married couples. The perks were high — a lower interest rate for their debt and only one payment to worry about per month.

"I didn't think it was a big deal because we're going to pay all this off. We're going to be married forever, right?" Powell said. "Fast-forward to the housing market crisis in 2009/2010. Not a happy marriage anymore. Everybody loses their jobs."

After the divorce, Powell's relationship with her ex soured. Documents reviewed by NPR show he has not made regular payments to the loan since 2016. That's despite the fact he'd originally taken out almost double her debt. Through consolidation, they are now on the hook together for nearly $200,000 — more than five times the amount of Powell's initial loan.

"I'm stuck with having this thing on my back," says Powell, "and knowing that at the end of the day, if he chooses not to pay, guess what? My monthly payment is $1,942.50."

More than 14,000 borrowers participated in the short-lived program, which Congress shuttered in 2006. It seemed like a simple concept: Joint consolidation loans allowed for couples to have one single monthly payment with a lower interest rate. The problem came when trying to separate loans in the case of divorce or domestic violence. The program has no way to disentangle the debts.

"It seems pretty straightforward. If you can put something together, you can take it apart," says Patrick Stebly. He has been in this situation since his divorce in 2013 and has spent the last five years trying to change it for everyone else.

Stebly's advocacy has inspired legislation to remedy this problem. Introduced by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., the bill would allow, in cases of divorce or domestic violence, for joint loans to be split proportionately based on the original loan amounts. Nearly half a dozen families in this situation told NPR this is the fix they need.

Warner first introduced the bill in 2017 after a constituent reached out about paying her abusive ex-husband's student loans. She had moved from Florida to Virginia to get away from him.

"While she physically got away, she couldn't get away from this mutual debt ... from an abusive husband. That's just wrong," said Warner.

Once the bill was introduced, people from across the U.S. contacted the senator's office asking for relief from the consolidation program.

There is no data on how many of the initial borrowers have since separated, but national and state domestic violence relief organizations say economic sabotage— like tanking a spouse's credit — is one of the top tactics used in abusive relationships.

"It's so powerful that many survivors cite their ability to provide financially for themselves and their children as one of the top reasons that they stay in an abusive relationship," says Monica McLaughlin of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

NPR spoke to borrowers who had experienced physical and mental abuse from former partners who now refuse to pay their student loans; they say Warner's legislation would set them free.

"There are so many barriers that survivors face," said McLaughlin. "Let's knock this one down and look to the next one."

Stebly and his ex-wife count themselves among the lucky ones. They have an amicable relationship, so after they separated, they put together a court agreement to repay their loans: His ex-wife pays her portion of the loan to him, and then he pays the loan provider. It's a workaround, but it has some drawbacks. His ex-wife should be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, but she cannot claim it to erase her debt because their loans are consolidated.

Officials have told Stebly over and over again: It would only take less than 1,000 words to fix this problem and separate their loans — but those words have to be approved by Congress.

"I've been banging out a thousand-word emails trying to talk about this thing, you know, daily for a while, trying to get somebody excited about this," Stebly said. "To me, it seems very straightforward."

Holly Rodriguez hugs her youngest son, Iommi, at her home in Richmond, Va.
/ Parker Michels-Boyce for NPR
Parker Michels-Boyce for NPR
Holly Rodriguez hugs her youngest son, Iommi, at her home in Richmond, Va.

Holly Rodriguez agrees. She's a single mother of two in Richmond, Va., and is reckoning with her decisions from two decades ago. She's getting a divorce, she's in default on her student loans — and the two issues are more related than it may seem.

Rodriguez's loan now amounts to almost $72,000. The jump comes from consolidating with her husband's loan, interest and about 10 years of tenuous finances.

"We did pay initially," Rodriguez said. "And then my husband, soon after my daughter was born, lost his job. That put our finances in a very hard place."

Rodriguez works in fundraising and communications for nonprofits; her ex-husband works in the restaurant industry as a line cook and a dishwasher. Both went through periods of unemployment and faced medical setbacks over the course of their marriage.

Finances were "a very contentious element of our marriage when we were together," she says, and their separation wasn't amicable. In 2018, she filed for, and was granted, a protective order for her and her children. It was later dismissed.

Given all that, getting her ex to pay up on student loans wasn't a top priority — but the collection agency kept calling. So Rodriguez contacted her loan servicer to let it know about her situation. She provided her husband's contact information and proved he was employed, but it did not matter.

The loan was in her name, and the loan servicer said if she wanted him to pay, she would have to work it out with him.

Rodriguez says her husband stopped regular payments on their student loans years ago. After repeated requests from NPR, he did not respond for comment.

"I was told, 'Yes, he co-signed with you, but you signed the paperwork first, so we pursued you first,' " Rodriguez said.

Afraid any missed payments would directly impact Rodriguez's credit score, she took on the entirety of the debt.

"The thing is, I don't mind paying my student loans back, but I do have a problem with having to pay for my loans and his loans," Rodriguez said. "I've been paying debt that isn't mine, and that's not OK. There's nothing that makes sense about that."

For two years, joint consolidation borrowers could benefit from the pause on federal student loan payments, but that will change in just a few months: Payments start back up on May 1. President Biden has made his aversion to widespread debt forgiveness clear.

Advocates and lawmakers acknowledge that a legislative fix should be an easy fix to make. "Even when things are totally logical and rational, stuff takes longer than it should in Congress," Warner says.

Getting the legislation through the gears of Congress — the same Congress that failed to pass Biden's social spending packageand recent voting rights legislation — may prove challenging.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.