By: John Fritze
Andrew Wall was just months out of college and working on a farm in Hawaii when he collapsed. It was the first sign of the brain tumor that would claim his life days after his 23rd birthday.
The rugby-playing English major from Annapolis left behind a shocked and grieving family. Understandably, his relatives weren’t focused on the financial implications of his death.
It wasn’t until years later that the tax bill arrived.
The U.S. Department of Education and private lenders might write off student loans when a borrower dies or becomes severely disabled. But a quirk in federal law requires the Internal Revenue Service to treat the forgiven debt as taxable income.
The Wall family suddenly found themselves on the hook for as much as tens of thousands of dollars.
“You go from owing money to a provider that has a whole system in place to pay over a period of time to, all of a sudden, you owe a flat fee to the IRS,” said Eric Wall, Andrew’s younger brother. “This was the last thing on my parents’ minds.”
Andrew Wall, who graduated from Annapolis High School in 2005, had about $75,000 in outstanding students loans from his education at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg. Eric Wall said his parents are still negotiating the amount of tax they will owe.
The federal government forgave some 55,000 student loans worth a total of $1.3 billion in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, but the number of families eligible for forgiveness is likely to be much higher. Relying on Social Security Administration data, the Department of Education recently identified about 387,000 disabled borrowers who officials believe might qualify to have their loans forgiven.
Those borrowers had more than $7.7 billion in outstanding debt.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is backing legislation to remove forgiven student loan debt from a co-signer’s gross income in cases of death or severe disability.
Eric Wall works for Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, one of the lead sponsors of the bill. But he learned of his own family’s struggles with the issue only after the legislation crossed his desk.
Andrew Wall, who was athletic and enjoyed the outdoors, also loved literature — and could often be found reading or writing, his brother said. He planned to join AmeriCorps and become a teacher, but he decided to spend the summer after his graduation on an organic farm in Hawaii. It was on that farm that he collapsed.
“When we started looking at the profile of the kinds of families this affected, I thought, ‘Wait a second,'” said Wall, a 26-year-old legislative correspondent in Coons’ office.
He called his parents to ask if they had received any mail that looked like tax paperwork and, sure enough, they found a form similar to a W-2 that had arrived months earlier.
“They were totally blindsided,” he said.
How much money the Treasury Department is collecting from the tax is not clear. An IRS spokesman could not provide a figure because the revenue is not easily separated from other, similar types of tax within the same category.
The agency declined to comment on the legislative effort.
Several advocates said the impact on revenue might be limited because, they believe, the IRS is not enforcing the liability as aggressively as other taxes.
Coons said that should not be an excuse for stalling on changing the tax code. An unknown number of families, he said, are following the letter of the law by paying the tax.
“When I heard that it struck me, frankly, as even worse,” the Democrat said in an interview.
“The more we dug into the fact pattern,” Coons said, “the more it became clear that this affects hundreds of thousands of people. The scale of it is actually pretty large.”
Nora Brennen, a Maine woman whose son died of an aneurysm in 2012, said she did not feel the IRS treated her family leniently. She remembers an IRS customer service representative suggesting she sell her deceased son’s personal belongings to help pay the $27,000 in federal taxes the family wound up owning on a forgiven student loan.
Her son, Keegan, died months after graduating from the New Hampshire Institute of Art.
“I’m crying because I’m still grieving, and he’s quoting me the section we fall under in the tax code that’s the same as a farmer who forecloses on his farm — who can sell old tires, and tractors” to pay off the tax liability, Brennen said.
“He’s giving me a lesson in how this tax works, and I’m like, ‘You’re kidding me, right?'”
Brennen, who kept her son’s belongings, now writes a $435 check every month to the federal government.
The issue also affects families whose children die while serving in the military, several advocates said. Derek Fronabarger, with the Washington-based Student Veterans of America, said his group is familiar with at least one case of a family being saddled with the post-loan debt.
The organization supports the legislation.
“At the time of a family’s grief, it’s definitely unconscionable to even think about sending them a bill,” Fronabarger said.
The legislation has influential Republican supporters, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. It doesn’t appear to have any vocal opposition.
“These families have been through enough already, and the last thing they need is a massive tax bill,” Portman said in a statement. “They did nothing wrong, and we have to fix this.”
Coons said he hopes the bill will advance without controversy this year, or become part of a broader series of tax cut-outs and adjustments Congress historically approves without drama.
There is little reason the measure should not be popular with Republicans — it is, after all, a tax cut — but supporters are unable to say exactly how much it would cost in lost revenue.
That uncertainty raises the significance of the bill’s score — the formal cost estimate determined by the Joint Committee on Taxation — expected later this year.
Rep. Peter Roskam, an Illinois Republican and a member of the Ways and Means Committee, is the lead sponsor of the bill in the GOP-controlled House. A spokesman, David Pasch, said supporters don’t believe the lost revenue will be significant.
“Any cost associated with this bill is because we are currently taxing the families of dead and permanently disabled students,” Pasch said. “This issue is just so inherently wrong that [Roskam] felt it his obligation to help correct it.”