I keep hearing of cases of FedLoan Servicing providing blatantly false and dangerously misleading advice to borrowers when it comes to submitting their annual income recertification.
In fact, it’s so clearly wrong that I wondered if the people reporting it were simply mistaken or confused until I’d heard it repeated so many times. It concerns how to file your recertification when utilizing the Married Filing Separately “loophole” in IBR or PAYE.
The quick background: as you may know, federal student loan borrowers must submit their income annually in order to partake in any of the income-driven repayment plans including IBR, PAYE, and REPAYE. If the borrower is married and files their taxes jointly with their spouse (which is the common choice), then their family income is used to calculate their monthly payments. But if they file their taxes separately, then their payments under IBR or PAYE would be based on just their own income and ignore their spouses. This is considered a bit of a loophole, which is why the newest payment plan REPAYE takes into account household income regardless of tax filing status.
So here’s the fraud part. There’s generalized incompetence, and then there is this: FedLoan is actually telling borrowers who have correctly filed their taxes separately that in order to ignore spousal income–even in IBR or PAYE–that they need to check a box saying that they are “married but cannot reasonably access [their] spouse’s information.”
This is simply not true and does not follow any of the rules. What it does do is clearly misuse a niche box that was provided to help estranged spouses or sufferers of domestic violence.
In fact, this very kind of fraud was anticipated by commenters and addressed by the government, because some folks were worried that simply allowing for “self-certification” of spousal status would give people the chance to reopen the MFS loophole that REPAYE closed by simply pretending that they’re not really married.
From the Federal Register:
The commenter also suggested that borrowers who want to evade the requirement will not bother to have their spouse keep separate income information, but will falsely claim that they have no access to such information instead. According to the commenter, if the Department simply accepts such claims, some borrowers will unfairly benefit, and if the Department contests borrower claims that their spouse’s income information cannot be accessed, it will lead to controversies and lawsuits at great expense to taxpayers.
We note that the strategies suggested by the commenter who raised concerns that some borrowers might try to evade higher payments by hiding income or falsifying the certification form would be fraudulent. We expect that most borrowers would be deterred from falsifying information on a Federal application form by the significant penalties that can be applied.
So there you have it. FedLoans is–for absolutely no reason–essentially forcing borrowers to commit fraud in order to rightfully exclude spousal income. People have been submitting their annual recertifications incorrectly under this specific direction for years and repeatedly so, and FedLoan is apparently still giving this advice on a regular basis.
My personal advice (as an individual citizen who thinks fraud is a thing to be actively avoided) is to simply not follow whatever particular variant of this incorrect advice you receive from whatever random representative you speak to. Instead, ask for someone higher up to set things right. There are definitely people in the organization that know that this is incorrect, so don’t give in and do the wrong thing. I would hope that this practice will become universally known as the fault of the loan servicers and not your personal failing, but the risk isn’t worth it.
Now, if you file taxes jointly and think you are being clever by checking that box in order to lower your payments, don’t do that. That’s definitely unequivocally fraud.
In a broader context, this is just another example of why you should not get your loan advice from a loan servicer. They have no fiduciary duty to actually help you, have been and continue to be sued for being awful at doing just that, and the current administration has done everything in their power to remove all momentum in addressing this problem.
Read a (free) book. Scour the web. Talk to an advisor. Whatever. Just don’t trust a servicer at face value.