What would happen to all of your debt if you died?
That’s a morbid question, but it’s a pretty important one, even for young adults. Back in 2012, ProPublica told the story of Francisco Reynoso, a gardener from Palmdale, California, whose son was killed in a car accident on the way home from a job interview. Reynoso, who made $21,000 a year, was held liable for paying off his son’s student-loan debt, which numbered in the six figures.
Reynoso’s story is, unfortunately, not a unique one. Millennials are the most educated generation yet, but with all those degrees has come a mountain of debt. On top of that, a shaky economy and changing views of work mean many young adults are working as freelancers or contractors, positions that often don’t come with the benefits that can help families cope with financial burdens should something bad happen.
The conversation about what happens to outstanding debts after death is crucial because not all debt is created equal. While a student’s federal loans would be forgiven if he or she were to pass away, the same can’t be said for loans that are taken out from private lenders. And while the tally of private-student-loan debt isn’t as large as the amount doled out by the federal government, it’s still a large sum—more than $150 billion in total, according to a 2012 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.* And private lenders are often much less lenient when it comes to repayment.
In the 2011-2012 school year, about 1.4 million undergraduate students took out private loans, and as of 2011, 90 percent of private loans involved a cosigner. That means that parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, or even grandparents who happily signed on the dotted line might find themselves saddled with the debt, should something happen to their loved one. The same is true for other kinds of debt from contracts that are cosigned, such as those that come with joint credit cards.