What Happens to Student Loans When You Die?

In most cases, your loans will be discharged, but there are exceptions for private loan borrowers.

Written by Ben Luthi / September 8, 2022

  • All federal loans are dischargeable upon the death of the borrower or the student on whose behalf a parent took out a loan.
  • With private lenders, death discharge policies can vary.
  • If you're struggling with student loan debt and feeling suicidal, there are resources available to help you.

Student loan debt can be a significant financial concern in life, and for some, it can also be a burden in death.

In most cases, student loans are discharged upon death, which means your spouse or heirs don't have to worry about footing the bill. But some private lenders may make it more difficult.

Here's what to know about what happens to student loans when you die.

Inside this article

  1. Federal student loans
  2. Private student loans
  3. Student loans and suicide

What happens to federal student loans when you die?

If you took out federal student loans as a college student or as the parent of a student, the U.S. Department of Education will discharge your loans upon your death or upon the death of the student for whom you took out a Parent PLUS Loan.[1] 

Cancellation doesn't occur automatically, though. The Education Department requires that you or your loved ones provide proof of death in the form of an original death certificate, a certified copy of the death certificate or an accurate and complete photocopy of the original or certified copy.[1]

You or your loved ones will submit the proof directly to your loan servicer.[1]

"The burden of this debt could be detrimental to the family finances," says Teresa Arrigo, a financial advisor with GenWealth Financial Advisors, "So taking time to complete the discharge process protects the long-term finances of the surviving family members."

What to Know Now About Student Loan Forgiveness

What to Know Now About Student Loan Forgiveness

There are a number of new initiatives to help you with your student loans. Here’s how you can take advantage of them.

Find out more

What happens to private student loans when you die?

While all federal student loans are eligible for discharge upon the death of the borrower or the child for which a parent took out loans, that's not always true for private student loan borrowers.

For the most part, the debt is forgiven if the primary borrower dies, but if the loan has a cosigner, that person may or may not need to keep making payments, particularly if the loan was disbursed prior to Nov. 20, 2018.

All loans disbursed after that date are required by law to release the cosigner from the loan upon the primary borrower's death, thanks to the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act.[2]

For loans disbursed before that date, here's a quick summary of what to expect with some of the most popular private student loan companies:[3-8]

LenderDischarge with no cosignerDischarge with a cosigner
Citizens BankYes for students; no for parents with refinance loansNo
College AveYesNo
ELFICase-by-case basisCase-by-case basis
Sallie MaeYesYes

Note that discharge is generally not available if the cosigner dies but the primary borrower is still alive.[4-7]

"Many [lenders that] don’t have an official discharge policy have a compassion review process families can use to receive loan forgiveness," says Arrigo. "Taking the time now to review your provider’s policy allows you the opportunity to put measures in place if needed to protect your family from the burden of your private loans."[9]

Can You Get Private Student Loan Forgiveness?

Can You Get Private Student Loan Forgiveness?

Private student loan forgiveness isn’t possible for most borrowers, but you could get some relief by using other options.

Find out more

What to do if your student loans are causing suicidal thoughts

Student loan debt can be an oppressive financial burden for many borrowers, and if yours has resulted in suicidal thoughts, you're not alone. 

In fact, student loans have become a leading cause of mental health struggles, and 1 in 16 borrowers have considered suicide due to their education debt, according to a survey by Student Loan Planner.[10]

Whether you're experiencing mental health issues due to your student loans or for other reasons, you can call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling 988. Alternatively, you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

You can also contact your loan servicer or lender to learn about potential relief options, such as:

  • Income-driven repayment plans

  • Forbearance or deferment

  • Modified payment plans

  • Student loan refinancing

While it's incredibly difficult to include student loans in a bankruptcy, there can be exceptions in extreme circumstances.

Are there tax implications for debt forgiven upon death?

With some types of debt, forgiveness can result in a tax bill. Fortunately, the rules for student loan debt are clear. Passed in 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act included a provision ensuring that any student debt that's discharged due to death will be exempt from taxes. This provision remains in effect until 2025.[11]

Are parent student loans forgivable upon death?
Am I responsible for my spouse's student loan debt when they die?
Are my loans forgivable if I become disabled?
Article Sources
  1. "Discharge Due to Death," Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/manage-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/death.
  2. "S.2155 - Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act," Congress.Gov, May 24, 2018, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/2155.
  3. "Ascent Funding FAQs," Ascent, https://www.ascentfunding.com/faq/#1615974938819-415c4487-44fa.
  4. Maria Elharaoui, "Is Student Loan Refinancing for Me?" Citizens, https://www.citizensbank.com/learning/is-student-loan-refinancing-right-for-me.aspx.
  5. Jon Drummond, "Discover Announces Fixed-Rate Private Student Loans," Discover, May 21, 2012, https://investorrelations.discover.com/newsroom/press-releases/press-release-details/2012/Discover-Announces-Fixed-Rate-Private-Student-Loans/default.aspx.
  6. "What are my repayment options and what if I cannot make a payment?" Earnest, https://help.earnest.com/hc/en-us/articles/360015812153-What-are-my-repayment-options-and-what-if-I-cannot-make-a-payment-Student-Loan-Refinancing.
  7. "Life Changes," Sallie Mae, https://www.salliemae.com/student-loans/manage-your-private-student-loan/get-help-with-special-circumstance/life-changes/.
  8. "Does SoFi offer student loan forgiveness including death benefit?" SoFi, https://support.sofi.com/hc/en-us/articles/360047192091-Does-SoFi-offer-student-loan-forgiveness-including-death-benefit-.
  9. Tori Bramble, "What Happens to Student Loan Debt When a Borrower Dies?" Upsolve, Dec. 22, 2021, https://upsolve.org/learn/what-happens-to-student-loans-when-you-die/.
  10. Melanie Lockert, "Survey: Student Loans Caused 2.5x as Many Suicidal Thoughts as the Pandemic Among Young Professionals," April 5, 2022, Student Loan Planner, https://www.studentloanplanner.com/student-loans-more-stressful-than-coronavirus-pandemic/.
  11. "Tax Reform Basics for Individuals and Families," Internal Revenue Service, 2019, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p5307.pdf.
  12. "Total and Permanent Disability Discharge," Federal Student Aid, https://studentaid.gov/manage-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/disability-discharge.

About the Authors

Ben Luthi

Ben Luthi

Ben has been writing about money since 2013. He's been on staff at NerdWallet as a credit card writer and for Student Loan Hero, where he covered student loans and other personal finance topics. Ben's work has appeared in U.S. News, The New York Times, Experian, FICO, Credit Karma, Bankrate and more

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