Question: I received a heart transplant three months ago and am unable to work. I was just approved for Social Security disability. Will my student loans be automatically forgiven?
Answer: Unfortunately, no, student loan cancellation won’t be automatic – but an award of Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits can help.
The federal Department of Education (DOE) will cancel (“discharge”) federal student loans for anyone with a total and permanent disability (TPD). The DOE considers a TPD to be an impairment that prevents you from doing any significant amount of work for at least five years. As you can see, this is a tougher definition to meet than Social Security’s definition of disability, which only requires you to be unable to work for one year.
So how does the Department of Education use evidence of an award of SSDI (or SSI) to judge whether you should receive a discharge of your student loans? When the Social Security Administration (SSA) awards disability benefits, the agency puts you into one of three categories based on its expectation of whether your condition will improve. The category dictates when you will receive a “continuing disability review” to see if your disability is still present. Here are the categories:
- Medical Improvement Expected (MIE). Your condition is expected to improve in the short term. Your case will be reviewed in six to twelve months.
- Medical Improvement Possible (MIP). The SSA believes it’s possible your condition will improve, but it’s not sure when. Your case will be reviewed in about three years.
- Medical Improvement Not Expected (MINE). The SSA expects that your condition will not improve and you will be permanently impaired. Your case will be reviewed in five to seven years.
Your review date will be included in your initial award letter (if it’s not, contact Social Security and request a Benefits Planning Query). Only those who are given a review date of five to seven years qualify for a total discharge of their federal student loans.
Social Security does not place heart transplant recipients into the Medical Improvement Not Expected (5-7 year review) category, so they are not automatically eligible for loan cancellation. Recipients of a heart transplant fall into the Medical Improvement Expected category, and in fact, the SSA’s disability listing for heart transplant recipients says that these individuals will be considered disabled only for one year following the surgery. After that, the SSA will reevaluate the individual’s condition to see whether they can meet the definition of disability another way. Our article on disability benefits for heart transplant recipients lays out the complications that a heart transplant might face and the ways they could get disability benefits after one year.
That said, heart transplant recipients may still be able to get their student loans cancelled. If your doctor submits documentation showing that you are unable to work and that your disability is expected to last for a continuous period of five years, the DOE may agree to cancel your loans. For more information on applying for a TPD discharge from the DOE, see our article on canceling student loans due to permanent disability.
If that doesn’t work, when it’s close five years since your heart surgery and you are still clearly disabled, you should qualify for a discharge of your loans. At that point, you can prove your continuing disability by having your doctor submit documentation that you are unable to work and that your disability has lasted for a continuous period of five years. In this case, any loan payments you made during the time you were receiving disability benefits (specifically, since you sent in your original SSA notice of award to the DOE) should be returned to you. However, there may be no need to make payments during this time if you get a temporary deferment or forbearance due to hardship and disability. See Nolo’s article on loan deferment and forbearance for more information.