When many people think of defaulted student loans, the image that first comes to mind is of a young person not long out of college.
But government data show that a growing number of boomers and retirees are suffering under the weight of student loans they can't afford to repay.
According to a 2017 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the number of people 60 and older with student loans quadrupled from about 700,000 to 2.8 million individuals between 2005 and 2015. The average debt owed by older borrowers also nearly doubled during that time, going from $12,000 to $23,500.
Most older people borrowed for college or cosigned student loans on behalf of their kids and grandchildren. But some Americans 50 and older took on debt to finance their own education or help a spouse earn a degree. Many of them now are having trouble meeting their financial obligations. Since 2015, nearly 40 percent of federal student loan borrowers 65 or older are in default, the CFPB says.
Even worse: A growing number of older borrowers have had a portion of their Social Security retirement or disability benefits seized for nonpayment of federal student loans.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that 114,000 older borrowers suffered such garnishments in 2015. The typical garnishment was just over $140 a month. And nearly half of defaulted borrowers were subject to the maximum garnishment, or 15 percent of their Social Security benefit.
"America's older consumers do not deserve to have their proverbial golden years tarnished by heavy student debt or have their Social Security benefits reduced for trying to help a younger family member get a college education," says Robin Howarth, a senior researcher with the Center for Responsible Lending.
If college debts are straining your budget or putting your Social Security payments at risk, consider these options.
Bone up on loan modification options
You may be able to modify unmanageable loans and temporarily reduce your payments through a deferment or loan forbearance. These strategies allow you to postpone repayment.
For example, you may qualify for an economic hardship deferment if you are experiencing extreme difficulty paying back loans and doing so harms your ability to buy food, keep a roof over your head or purchase much-needed prescription drugs.
To see if you qualify and how to apply, check out studentaid.ed.gov.
Know your loan details and loan servicer
You also can stay out of default by keeping on top of loan details and making sure all payments are going to the right place, which is usually a student loan servicer.
Whether you have federal or private student loans, the servicer should be able to supply you with all pertinent information related to your account, including the balance due, required monthly payment, interest rate and payoff date.
Researchers at the Center for Responsible Lending say that the rise in the numbers of older Americans in default could be avoided if loan servicers provided better assistance and information to financially challenged consumers. Until such calls are heeded, it's up to you to be proactive in reaching out to your loan servicer.
Also, double-check all forms and ask for monthly statements on all student loans.
Need to find your loan servicer? The Department of Education maintains a list of federal student loan servicing companies.
Understand your cosigning rights and obligations
If you've cosigned a student loan for your children or grandchildren, you're not alone. Some 73 percent of older Americans with college debt took on loans for a younger family member, the CFPB reports. (The rest borrowed for their own education or that of a spouse).
"Unfortunately, helping your kids go to college by going into debt yourself works against your own self-interest and your ability to retire," says Rebekah Barsch, vice president of planning at Northwestern Mutual. But such indebtedness happens all too often even though other more prudent options likely exist, she says.
"The reality is that students have choices about which college to attend. They can pick a school where tuition is $50,000 a year or one that's $10,000 a year. Students can also get scholarships. But there are no scholarships for retirement," Barsch says.
If you do decide to serve as a coborrower, don't simply assume that once your family member graduates, he or she will make payments.
Be very clear with relatives about exactly who will be repaying those student loans, and spell out any agreements in writing. Otherwise, if your child or grandchild cannot make payments on time, your finances and credit could take a nosedive.
If you're already repaying a student loan on behalf of your relatives, it's not unreasonable to ask them to wean themselves off of your support and make the loan their responsibility. Try to establish a time frame when your burden can be lifted so you can enjoy your later years.
Additionally, be aware that some lenders, such as Sallie Mae, allow the borrower to obtain a "cosigner release," which legally lets you get taken off the hook for a student loan under specific preset conditions.
"All of us want the best for our kids. But we have to ask the question: What really is the best for everyone involved?" Barsch says.
Consider loan consolidation
If you're currently in repayment and you have multiple student loans, you may get financial relief by consolidating your student loans into one smaller, more affordable payment.
This gives you some economic breathing room. However, the trade-off is that loan consolidation extends the life of your loans, so you pay more interest in the long run.
Depending on what type of student loans you have (private or federal), your options for consolidating your loans into a single loan will vary.
Sign up for flexible repayments
If you have federal student loans, Uncle Sam offers a variety of loan repayment options that take into account your income, family size and other factors.
The income-driven repayment plans now available include an income-based repayment (IBR) plan, income-contingent repayment (ICR) plan, Pay as Your Earn (PAYE) repayment plan and the Revised Pay as You Earn plan, better known as REPAYE. The latter plan caps your student loan repayments at a maximum of 10 percent of your income, depending on when you took out the loan.
Get a loan cancellation if you qualify
In 2015, more than half of the 114,000 older borrowers who were subjected to garnishment of their Social Security checks were receiving Social Security disability benefits rather than Social Security retirement income, the GAO found.
However, nearly one-third of older borrowers who had defaulted were ultimately able to get rid of their college debt by obtaining a total and permanent disability discharge, the GAO reported.
A disability discharge is a loan cancellation that's available to borrowers with a disability that is not expected to improve. If you qualify, your loans could be written off entirely, but you will have to provide annual documentation about your income to federal authorities.