A mom with $50,000 in student debt 'can't break free' from her ex-husband because she's still stuck paying off his loan balance

A mom with $50,000 in student debt 'can't break free' from her ex-husband because she's still stuck paying off his loan balance
  • Chrystal Copeland, 46, is stuck paying off her ex-husband's student loans.

  • While a law was passed to allow the separation of spousal balances, it's taking time to implement.

  • For Copeland, being tethered to her ex has meant she can't afford to have more children.

Chrystal Copeland, 46, separated from her now ex-husband in 2005. But their student loans are keeping them together.

After graduating with about $25,000 in student debt in 2001, Copeland and her then-husband decided to consolidate their debt balances into the spousal joint consolidation loan program with the idea that paying a single balance with a single interest rate would make things cheaper in the long run.

But when she decided to pursue a divorce while she was pregnant with her child, the law at the time prohibited the separation of spousal loans because Congress shuttered the program in 2006. She said the judge overseeing the divorce agreed that each person should be responsible for their loans. Since the balances couldn't be separated, Copeland and her ex-husband would switch making payments each year until the debt was paid off.

But that's not how it ended up evolving. Copeland said her ex didn't make a single payment on their combined balance, leaving her responsible for the payments because, having custody over their child, she didn't want to risk the impacts of a bad credit score or wage garnishment should she fall behind.

"I figured out how to be a single mom with the support of family. I'm remarried, and my husband has been instrumental in supporting me and supporting our son," Copeland told Business Insider. "The only thing that is still holding me in this cycle of abuse is these student loans. They're still beholding me to my ex-spouse, and I can't break free."

She now has about $50,000 in student debt, according to documents reviewed by Business Insider, and she's facing payments of about $500 a month.

Chrystal Copeland
Chrystal Copeland.Chrystal Copeland

To help address the issue and allow borrowers with spousal loans to separate their balances, Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. David Price introduced the Joint Consolidation Loan Separation Act of 2021 — signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2022 — to allow for separation of the loans.

But the Education Department wrote in guidance on Federal Student Aid's website that the application process to allow borrowers to separate their balances would take time, and there still isn't a clear timeline for when those borrowers can finally seek relief.

"Because of the significant changes to ED's systems that are needed to implement the JCSLA, the separation of joint consolidation loans and origination of new Direct Consolidation Loans will likely not occur for some time," the guidance says. It also says the process to allow for separation won't happen "until late 2024 at the earliest."

Copeland said she'd contacted her local representatives to seek an update on when she'd be able to separate her loans, but she hadn't been able to get any additional information. Until she can, her future — financially and emotionally — is being held back.

"Because of this debt, I've decided not to have more children because I couldn't afford it. I couldn't afford the childcare and the debt. I don't buy new cars, and I'm not on the mortgage for my house that my husband owns," Copeland said. "There's nothing that ties me to my ex-spouse except for this loan, and I just don't want to be associated with him anymore."

The Education Department didn't respond to a request for comment from BI on an update on the separation process.

'It would be emotional relief'

There are a range of reasons — aside from divorce — that a borrower may want to separate their spousal loans. For example, BI previously spoke to a couple who was unable to pursue Public Service Loan Forgiveness despite working in public service because spousal loans didn't qualify for relief through the program.

"If divorce allowed us to separate our loans, we would absolutely divorce and then remarry," one of the borrowers in the couple said at the time. "Because it's crazy to think, essentially, because you're a married couple, you're now being penalized."

For Copeland, the ability to separate would give her the relief she needs to move on with her life without being attached to her past.

"What this would mean for me going forward is the ability to save for retirement. Right now, we put limited money into retirement because we still have student loans, and it would mean that we could potentially put me on the house," Copeland said.

"It would also mean being able to pay my portion of the debt in full and not continue to have to pay the debt of my ex-spouse," she continued. "It would be an emotional relief to me and just give me peace of mind in the future, and closure."

While the application for separation isn't available yet, the Federal Student Aid office recommends that those hoping to pursue separation should contact the Federal Student Aid Ombudsman Group to indicate that they intend to apply to separate their loans. Once the process is implemented, it says, those borrowers will be notified.

For now, Copeland plans to continue making payments on the balance because she can't afford to fall behind — but she's hoping that implementing the separation process will be treated with a sense of urgency to get relief to herself and other borrowers who are dealing with the same issue.

"I'm still stuck with this overwhelming debt, and I just thought I would pay until the day I died, to be honest," Copeland said.

Read the original article on Business Insider