Economy

You Can Lose Your Tax Refund if You Have Student Loans

Tax season is underway. The Apr. 15 filing deadline is in less than a month, but for younger Americans paying off student loans, there's more to worry about than simply mailing taxes on time: It's called the Treasury Offset Program, and it can affect whether you get your tax refund.

In most cases, creditors are unable to touch tax refunds. Not so with student loans. 

While credit card companies and other private debt collectors are barred from garnishing money coming to taxpayers from Uncle Sam, some federal and state creditors can help themselves to tax refunds via a process known as 'offsetting.' Under the Treasury Offset Program, these entities get a whack at your tax refund if you have an outstanding debt in certain categories, including:

  • past-due child support payments
  • back taxes
  • any unemployment compensation owed to the state
  • past-due student loans 

So, if you are in default on your student loans, the story could go something like this. These questions were sent to Credit.com: 

Peggy:

"I was looking forward to my tax refund as it will help with bills and much needed things for the baby. It was accepted and [...] now after digging around I found out they are sending it to the U.S. Dept. of Ed. for my student loans which I thought were in deferment. Now this is causing me and my kids a hardship but they refuse to send me the refund."

Amber: 

Is there anything I can do to stop my whole federal refund from going to my student loans? [...] I've just set up a payment plan, but I really need my refund this year. 

How do I know that I'm at risk for losing my refund? 

Federal student loans are typically considered to be in default status when payment is at least 270 days past due. Through the Treasury Offset Program, the U.S. Department of Education can intercept your refund in whole or in part once you fall into default.

For instance, if you owe $5,000 in back payments to the federal government for an overdue Stafford loan, the Education Department can seize 100 percent of your tax refund to cover that debt - that is if you don't owe child support payments or past due taxes to the IRS, which each get first dibs. 

Although your refund can be garnished without your permission, federal law does require the student debt holder to notify you before taking the money. These traditionally go out toward the end of summer, giving the borrower a chance to catch up before the account becomes certified for an offset. 

Your state refund may be at risk, too.

Some states also have offset program which are separate from the federal Treasury Offset Program. In these states, local guaranty agencies can take past due student loan dollars out of your state income tax refund, further limiting what debtors are returned on their taxes. 

Recourse is limited if your refund is taken by the Department of Education.

Realistically, it's easier to prevent a refund offset than it is to successfully challenge it. 

Although you can request a hearing to appeal the decision if your tax refund is garnished - either before or after the offset occurs - simply not receiving notice of the pending offset isn't enough to get your money back. You'll need proof of an approved excuse, such as the loan isn't yours, the default rating was in error, or that you're totally and permanently disabled. In limited cases, an individual can also dispute an offset for financial hardship. 

The best way to stop an offset is to avoid going into default in the first place. With laws on the side of the federal government and big banks, though, this isn't always simple. (The company above even suggests selling your diamond jewelry for money to get out of default. Seriously.)

With other kinds of debt, bankruptcy is an option to discharge what's owed. But as ATTN has already noted, student loan debt is a different matter - harder to discharge than even gambling debt. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and a coalition of Senate Democrats sent a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan in February decrying the federal government's treatment of student borrowers and its refusal to stand up to entities that abuse the system. Programs like the Treasury Offset may be collecting legitimate debt - no one would dispute that those in default do owe money - but it's also one more way that the government profits off of our broken higher education system. Some silver lining came earlier this month when President Obama announced a Student Aid Bill of Rights, which seeks to make the repayment process more transparent for student borrowers.

Still, the problem of mounting student loan debt remains. Perhaps instead of asking whether students like the Corinthian 10 are obligated to repay their loans, we should be asking whether education should be a billion dollar profit engine for anyone in the first place.