I graduated from college at the onset of the recession in 2008 and graduated from law school just in time for the recession to hit the legal market in 2011. By the time I finished with both my degrees I had $193,000 of federal student loan debt, which has since grown to over $250,000. Needless to say, I’ve never been financially able to make student loan repayments under the standard repayment plan.
Once my six-month student loan grace period ended in 2011, I immediately signed up for an Income-Driven Repayment Plan with each of my three loan servicers.
Every borrower enrolled in one of these plans has to renew their eligibility through their loan servicer every year. Since I have three servicers, that means at this point I have been through the renewal process 18 times. The first 17 recertifications went off without a hitch.
So I was stunned when I found out my 18th and most recent submission for recertification through one of my three loan servicers was denied. That was it — I was kicked out of the program. Suddenly, my monthly payments of $362 were going to balloon to nearly $2,000.
I got on the phone with the lender right away, determined to find out why I was booted from the program. In the end, I was able to successfully re-enroll.
Why my income-driven repayment renewal was denied
It turns out my status as a self-employed worker was to blame.
After I was laid off from my job as a solutions consultant at the end of 2016, I started a business as a freelance writer in 2017. One of the requirements to recertify your eligibility for income-driven repayment plans is to submit proof of income. When I was working full time, that was no problem. I just used records of my pay stubs to verify my income.
But now that I was self-employed, I didn’t have pay stubs. Early in 2017, when my deadline to recertify with one of my loan servicers was approaching, I called them and asked what documents I could use to verify my income.
I was told that all I needed was a self-certifying letter stating that I’d been laid off and was now self-employed as a freelance writer. I also needed to include my gross monthly income. I wrote the letter and stated what my approximate monthly income was thus far, and my submission for recertification on the Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) Plan was approved, no problem.
But remember that I have three different loan servicers. So I had to go through the same process with the other two as well. Unfortunately, when I tried to use the same strategy to renew my certification with my second servicer, I was denied.
I was shocked and stressed out, to say the least.
Resubmitting my application
I called this loan servicer and asked why I had been denied. At first, the representative I spoke with told me there wasn’t sufficient documentation of income. When I asked why my self-certifying letter wasn’t enough, the representative on the phone explained that it usually was enough. I pressed her to find out what exactly was wrong with my letter that had resulted in a denial. It turns out, they didn’t like that I used the word “approximate” when stating my gross monthly income. They needed a firm number. Additionally, they wanted a work address.
I rewrote the letter to take out the word “approximately” and explained that as a self-employed freelance writer I worked from home and had no additional company address. I submitted my forms again and crossed my fingers.
In the meantime, my loan servicer agreed to put my loans into deferment for one month. That would ensure that I wouldn’t get hit with my new larger payment the following month.
The long wait for news
After I resubmitted my IDR Plan recertification application, I was told I would hear back within 10 days. It was nearly a month before I heard back from them in June. It was good news – my documents were approved, and I would be enrolled in my new IDR Plan starting in August.
But the celebration was short-lived.
Since I had only been granted a one-month deferment, which covered me for June, and my new IBR Plan wouldn’t kick in until August, that meant I would have a gap in July. And I’d have to pay my new, larger monthly payment. I couldn’t afford the payment of nearly $2,000 and to miss it would mean defaulting on my loans. Defaulting on federal loans could mean losing access to the income-driven repayment plans as well as forbearance and deferment options, not to mention it would wreak havoc on my credit.
Once again I was caught off guard and stressed out. And, once again, I called my loan servicer to find out why the new plan wasn’t being applied sooner. Apparently, the billing cycle had already passed for July.
To solve the problem, I requested another month of deferment for July, which I was granted.
Asking for a forbearance or deferment is never fun, but it is always better than defaulting on your loans and losing access to those options and flexible repayment plans.
What to do if your recertification is denied
- Be proactive. One of the biggest lessons I learned from this ordeal is that it pays to be proactive. Don’t count on the loan servicer sending the paperwork you need to fill out; you can find a recertification document here. If you are struggling with payments, you have to take action. Ask your loan servicer questions to find out what might work best for you, a new payment plan or a temporary forbearance or deferment. If your loan servicer is being stingy with answers, persist, do not hang up the phone until you have the answers you need.
- Don’t be shy about requesting deferment or forbearance. Loan servicers won’t necessarily anticipate that you may need a deferment or forbearance if your repayment plan is denied. So be sure to ask.
- Resubmit your application. It isn’t unusual to have your recertification denied for a number of reasons. For example, if you are a salaried employee, paid biweekly, and only submit one pay stub, you could be denied for not demonstrating an entire month’s worth of income. But remember, you don’t have to accept that denial as final; you can usually resubmit if something was wrong with your original submission.
The Bottom Line: Not all loan servicers are created equally
As I learned the hard way, some loans servicers are pickier about the language you use on your renewal forms than others.
“For those that are self-employed, some [servicers] will have specific requirements in the phrasing of the documents used to certify income,” says Columbus, Ohio-based financial advisor Natalie Bacon. “What works for one loan servicer may not work for another.”
The biggest lesson I learned was not to assume that just because one loan servicer accepted my documentation, the other loan servicer would as well. It’s always important to communicate with each of your student loan servicers.