A mother is responsible for her dead son’s $31,000 student loan

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Lynda Swearingen’s son Zachary died after a serious fall in January 2020. He was just 28 years old.

INDIANAPOLIS — Parents sign student loans together to help their kids borrow money for college. A mother was told she was responsible for her son’s debts after he died unexpectedly at a young age.

Lynda Swearingen’s son Zachary was born on her mother’s 50th birthday.

“It was a good day,” Lynda said quietly.

Zachary was one of four boys and the artist in the family.

“From a young age, [he was] really talented. But I didn’t really realize how talented I was until so many years later,” Lynda said.

After high school, Zachary pursued photography at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Lynda, a nurse and lactation consultant, did her best to help pay.

“The conversations were, ‘Guys, I can’t afford to pay tuition for you guys, I can’t. But I will co-sign your student loans.’”

So she co-signed the loans — and only gave it a second thought after the worst day of her life.

In January 2020, Zach died at the age of 28 after a serious fall.

“The doctor just came out and just said, ‘I’m really sorry. His injuries were just too bad. He just died about ten minutes ago,’” Lynda said while crying. “Grief doesn’t end, you know, it just doesn’t end. [You] I just love her so much and you never think something like this will happen.”

As Lynda mourned, she put Zachary’s affairs in order, including his student loans.

She said his personal loans from Sallie Mae were written off.

Then she contacted Elements Financial, a consumer-owned credit union, about his other student loan.

While the Indianapolis-based lender agreed to write off the interest on the loan, they told Lynda that she still owed the balance — just under $31,000.

“If we sign together, that means I’ll help him if he’s having trouble paying. Not if he dies, I’m going to pay for the whole thing,” she said.

When it comes to student loans, federal loans are given after death. But for personal loans, it’s a gray area.

A law on the books says in part that private loan co-signers should be fired upon the death of a student.

But Elements Financial initially denied Lynda’s plea for forgiveness for two reasons.

First, the agreement was signed before the November 2018 law came into force. The second reason, the money borrowed was an open line of credit, although it was labeled as a student loan.

The law precludes open lines of credit, although the paperwork states that the funds will be paid directly to the school.

“If someone gets into an emergency in their life and they can’t pay for their house or their car, then that’s it [the lender] can take the house and they can take the car and people can find another place to live,” said Lynda. “There is nothing tangible to take.”

If you are a co-signer of a personal student loan that was completed before November 2018, take the steps to cancel it.

Nerdwallet’s Anna Helhoski said to remove your name you need to see if your private lender offers co-signer release.

“Call your private lender and find out if that’s even available to you,” Helhoski said.

Helhoski said if the lender doesn’t offer this, there are other options.

“Consider, the main borrower, most likely your student if you are a parent, to check in with other lenders that can refinance you and that offer co-signer release,” Helhoski said.

Unlike a home mortgage, there are no costs associated with student loan refinancing. However, your last resort may be life insurance.

As for Lynda, she finally received good news.

After years of persistence and being contacted by 13News, Elements Financial contacted Lynda to let her know that the student loan was being waived and that they were changing their death-related student loan policies going forward.

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