The Dangers of Co-Signing a Loan

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Updated on Wednesday, May 20, 2015

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When you first step out into the real world it is hard to ignore the marketing of what you need or want in your new life. You’ll find advertisements for colleges, credit cards and which car to buy are about as normal as a McDonald’s advertisement. Because money is currently not growing on trees, you may need to borrow some to make life happen. If you have ever applied for a loan before you received your first job or while in college, the application may have asked for a co-applicant or co-signer. The two terms may sound similar, but the obligations of a co-signer and co-applicant are different.

In a co-applicant the individual is attempting to get a joint loan with someone else, an example would be obtaining a mortgage. In most cases when buying a home, both incomes will be needed to obtain the loan and will feature both names on the mortgage loan and deed.

A co-signer is usually brought on if the applicant lacks income or good credit or for that matter any credit at all. Assuming the co-signer’s credit history meets the lender’s requirements, the co-signer will act as a default if the borrower or individual receiving the loan does not make payments per the loan agreement. A co-signer is required if the bank is worried you may not pay back the loan. To reduce the risk it requires someone who has a good credit history, income, and demonstrated they have paid their bills on time. So that doesn’t sound so bad, where’s the danger?

Who’s Responsible?

Co-signers are common with student loans as an 18 year old rarely has built a strong credit report with a history of good behavior. Both the student borrower and the cosigner are equally responsible for paying back the loan. Some private student loans offer the student loan borrower the option to release the cosigner, but this is usually at the financial institutions discretion after a certain amount of consecutive monthly payments are made on time and the borrower/student has meet certain credit requirements.

Even in the event the borrower has reached the consecutive monthly payments made on time the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has received complaints that borrowers have experienced a challenge getting the co-signer released from a loan. One particular complaint noted that even after making the required 28-on time payments, and then finding out it was 36 on-time payments, to only be met with a policy change from the lender that requires 48 on-time payments before applying to release the co-signer.

Remember that co-signing a loan means the obligation is shown on your credit report and thus affects your credit score. So if little Johnny forgets a payment because he failed to set up automatic payments or is having trouble making the payments on time, then this also can negatively affect your credit score as the co-signer.

It’s also important to remember, if you co-sign for a $20,000 student loan during little Johnny’s freshman year in college, this loan has 4 years to grow and accumulate interest. If the borrower defaults on the payments, then you are responsible for paying back your new student loan.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Any time you co-sign for a loan, it is in your best interest to consider that you are fully responsible for paying back the full amount of the loan, because in the eyes of the law and the financial institution you are. It could even be the case if the borrower passes away before repaying the debt.

In the unfortunate case the borrower passes away, Federal student loans are discharged after the death of the borrower.

Under the same circumstances with private loans, in many cases the co-signer is now fully responsible for the balance of the loan; this also works the other way as well if the co-signer passes away.

According to a April 2014 mid-year student loan update from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, from 2008 to 2011 there was a more than a 20% uptick in private loans being co-signed. In 2008 67% of private loans were co-signed often by a parent or grandparent, but by 2011, over 90% of loans were co-signed.

One scary highlight from the CFPB report found that borrowers  are discovering when a co-signer passes away, like a parent or grandparent, an automatic default occurs. This default can occur even if the borrower is in good standing and current on the loan. I’m sure you can imagine the confusion when borrowers received notices to pay the loan in full.

It never really occurred to me when I received my private student loan that if the borrower or co-signer of the loan were to pass away it could result in financial distress. If you are already in a private student loan with a co-signer, then it may be a good time to consider having life insurance on one another as a source of funds to pay off the loan in the event of a death.

Private Student Loans: My Story

I was accepted to study in Rome, Italy, but unfortunately I did not attempt to obtain anything more than Federal student loan funding for my study abroad trip, so I was forced to cancel. I told myself I would pursue my dream of studying in another country at any cost. I found a study abroad program in London and I was accepted. However I needed extra finances and more than the Federal government could spare. I started applying for private student loans, the university I planned to attend was a private university, which cost four times more than current in-state tuition. Because I did not have much of a credit score or any income to report, I asked my parents if they would co-sign to receive the funding I needed to study abroad.

After a short online application process with my parents, we were approved and the loan did exactly what I needed at the time; it helped pay for my tuition, room and board, and whatever other shenanigans London and the surrounding European countries had to offer. At that exact moment I could not have been happier, I was going to London and studying abroad in another country. But I didn’t focus on the fact my lender expected me to pay the loan back in full plus interest.

While I enjoyed my time in London, my private student loan put financial stress on myself and my parents. I never defaulted but I remember the pressure I felt to make sure it was never the financial responsibility of my parents. I couldn’t imagine putting my parents through a financial hardship all because I wanted to study abroad while I was in college. I made a commitment to pay off my private student loan first for a number of reasons, but most of all it was to make sure my family was not a story in the news that resulted in a son defaulting on a loan to only hurt my family’s financial situation.

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