Q: I was looking forward to my tax refund, as it will help with bills and much-needed things for the baby. It was accepted and … now after digging around I found out they are sending it to the U.S. Dept. of Education for my student loans, which I thought were in deferment. Now this is causing me and my kids a hardship, but they refuse to send me the refund. … What can I do to get my refund owed to me?” —Peggy
A: Many people file their taxes expecting a refund, only to discover it has been taken to pay their student loan debt. We’ll explain what you can do about it, but first, it’s important to understand why it may have happened.
Why Was My Tax Refund Taken?
If you are in default on your federal student loans (which by definition means you are behind by 270 days or more), the Department of Education can take your tax refund using the Treasury Offset Program. This program authorizes federal payments such as tax refunds or Social Security income to be intercepted in whole or in part to pay debts owed to other federal agencies. There are some limited consumer protections, but debtors aren’t always aware of them.
What Can You Do if Your Refund Was Seized?
We spoke with Jay Fleischman, a student loan and bankruptcy attorney, about what people can do. First, he said that by federal law, people who have student loans in default get a notice that they are at risk of having any potential tax refund seized for student loan repayment. That notice contains instructions for a review of your loan information and how to avoid the offset.
If your refund is taken and you don’t believe it should have been, you can contest the offset by contacting the Education Department. If it was taken in error, the money will be refunded. However, be aware that an error does not generally include not getting a notice; it typically would require that you be able to prove your student loan was not in default. If you were in default, you probably can’t get your refund back. The one case in which you are likely to be able to recover the money is if you filed jointly with a spouse, and it was his or her student loan that was in default. “You may be able to make an injured spouse claim,” said Fleischman.
Fleischman said it’s a good idea to adjust your withholdings whether you’re subject to a tax refund offset of not. A large tax refund means you overpaid your taxes during the year, he notes. If you are in default on your federal student loans you probably need that money. But at this point, there is nothing you can do to change the over-withholding from last year. Still, revisiting how much you’re having withheld for taxes is a smart move for anyone who got a large refund.
The bigger problem is how you are going to deal with the default on your student loans from now on. You’ll want to get out of default and stay that way. (Here’s an explainer on how to deal with student loan default.) In some cases, you may be able to get an income-based repayment plan in which your monthly payment can be set as low as $0. And “if your circumstances are dire and expected to remain so,” bankruptcy and the discharge of student loans might be options, Fleischman said.
For most, what is done is done. The best thing you can do is to look ahead. And if you haven’t filed your tax return and expect a large refund, you may want to see what options you have to get out of default first. Being in default on a student loan can not only squeeze your budget, it can hurt your credit and cost you thousands of dollars in higher debt costs over a lifetime. You can get two of your credit scores for free, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com to track your standing.
This article was updated on Jan. 25, 2017.