Debt happens. When it comes to pursuing a post-secondary education, loans can be an important means to an end. But before you choose between federal and private loans (or choose a combination of the two), you need to understand the difference and the long-term effect each can have on you and your family’s future. This includes knowing whether it means leaving loved ones in debt should you face a personal tragedy.
Federal student loans are funded by the federal government. On a federal student loan, the terms and conditions for repayment are based on the law. As a student, you don’t have to start paying on the loan until you graduate, unenroll, or drop your hours to less than half-time. You may also qualify for a subsidized loan if you need the government to take care of the interest on your loan while you are still in school, provided you enrolled in enough credit hours. Federal student loans offer protection for your family after your death. If you pass away, your loan will be “discharged,” meaning dismissed, once proof of death is submitted to the company that handles the billing on your loan (also known as a loan servicer). FORBES magazine warned last summer, however, that not all federal student loans are dissolved so quickly. A PLUS loan taken out by parents, even if forgiven, can still have parents on the hook for paying income taxes on the forgiven loan.
Private student loans are made by a lender, which may include a credit union, a bank, a state agency, or a school. The Office of the U.S. Department of Education clarifies that on a private loan, these terms and conditions are set by the lender and may or may not require you to make payments while still enrolled in school. The interest rate may be fixed or variable and may include a penalty for paying the loan off early. Note that a private student loan is intended only for education; it is not the same as a personal loan, which can be used for home projects or weddings. A private personal loan may include language that excludes the use of the funds for post-secondary education. It is important to note that while private student loans may come with a death and disability policy, the lender may still try to collect from your estate and/or co-signers. Some states are community property states, which means a spouse can be on the hook for student loan debt after your death even if he or she didn’t co-sign on it. The answer to this conundrum is often a term life insurance policy that will cover student loan debt in the event of your death.