A social worker at Sacramento County’s department of children’s protective services who filed for bankruptcy, asked the court to forgive the $137,000 she owed in student loans because paying them, she said, would make it impossible to provide for her five family members, which include her elderly mother, disabled husband, and three children.
According to lawyers for the Department of Education, her $700-per-month food budget was too high and “she cannot purposely choose to live a lifestyle that prevents her from repaying her student loans.”
The government’s scrutiny of her cash flow is not surprising. For more than a decade, the Education Department has closely examined debtors’ basic expenses in its fight to prevent student borrowers from discharging their student loans in bankruptcy- often disqualifying those who need it the most.
In some bankruptcy proceedings, courts will consider how much someone is spending, to determine how much they can reasonably pay back to their creditors in the future. However, when it comes to student loan debt, the government has additional leverage. The Education Department can deny people bankruptcy altogether if its lawyers can show that debtors are spending too much on basic items like fast food, cable television, or even their pension plans.
Government lawyers are given license to do such meticulous accounting because of a provision in the bankruptcy code. Congress passed rules in the 1970s making it nearly impossible to get rid of student loan debt in bankruptcy unless they can prove “undue hardship,” without defining the term. Instead, it is left to the courts to interpret the law. Most courts require debtors prove they cannot maintain a “minimal” standard of living while paying the debt back. Lawyers for the Education Department generally view any sign of excessive spending as an argument that debtors don’t qualify.
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