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Supreme Court Considers Student Loan Bankruptcy Case

December 1, 2009

by Agnes Jasinski

The U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments today on the intricacies of one student's 20-year-old debt that could change the way bankruptcy law handles student loan cases.

The case, United Student Aid Funds Inc. v Espinosa, goes back to 1992, when Francisco Espinosa, a technical school graduate, filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Espinosa by then owed nearly $18,000 in not only student loans taken out four years earlier, but interest on those loans to lender United Student Aid Funds Inc. He filed for bankruptcy to relieve him not of his loan debt, but the nearly $5,000 in interest accrued on the $13,000 he initially borrowed. Thinking he had reached an agreement with his lender, Espinosa eventually paid off the principal on the loan over a five-year period.

Several years later, however, he received notice from his lender that he still owed the remaining interest. The lender claimed Espinosa had not sufficiently shown "undue hardship," a requirement under bankruptcy law for students to qualify their student loans under Chapter 13. Espinosa says he fell on hard times when the hours for his baggage handler job through airline America West were cut, and he was unable to find a job that fit his degree in computer drafting and design through the technical college.

That's when the legal battle began. Espinosa won on the bankruptcy court level, but the district courts ruled in favor of the lender and demanded a hearing to show whether Espinosa met the criteria for a bankruptcy filing. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it was too late for the lender to challenge the filing, which then landed the case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education previewing the case this week looked at the implications of the court's eventual ruling. If the Supreme Court overturns the last appeals court's decision, lenders could feel free to collect back interest on student loans that have already been approved for Chapter 13. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Espinosa, lenders could be open to abuse by borrowers taking advantage of the law to get out of their student loan repayments. The article suggests that the Court should consider redefining the "undue hardship" criteria to make it easier for judges to apply that criteria across the board, as many say it is already too subjective.

The case is an important one for students, especially in a difficult economic time when college students are not only borrowing more, but having a tougher time finding jobs to make payments on their student loan debt. Student loan default rates are also on the rise for both federal and private loans as tuitions only continue to rise. If you're worried about the amount of debt you'll accrue going to that dream school, consider all of your options. Factor college cost into your college search, and make sure you have a good idea of financial aid and scholarship money available to you before taking out student loans.


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